Cell towers

Today, the La Plata County commissioners are scheduled to take up the topic of regulating cellphone towers. They are right to do so. Cellphone towers have the potential to become intrusive eyesores and may yet proliferate around the county.

The county took notice of this back in 2011 when AT&T proposed to build a 195-foot-tall cell tower in front of Hermosa Cliffs. That tower raised so much local opposition that the company withdrew its application. It did, however, serve as something of a wake-up call for the county.

As Commissioner Bobby Lieb told the Herald, “The county became concerned because it realized it had nothing with regard to regulation of cellphone towers. We haven’t seen the proliferation of them as we had feared originally, but nevertheless, there should be something in the code that addresses it.”

Precisely. The construction of cellphone towers – their height, location and visual impacts – is a land-use issue and legitimately falls within the county’s purview. And given that the issue both appears here to stay and could become more contentious, the county seems prudent to address it now.

As currently envisioned, the county regulations would entail a number of commonsense provisions. They would require that, whenever possible, new antennas be “collocated” – added to existing towers. They would also mandate that abandoned or unused towers be removed.

Beyond that, the regulations would require that cell towers be set back from neighboring properties by a distance of at least 1.3 times the tower’s height. Towers would be limited to a maximum height of 199 feet, although there would also be provisions for a waiver process if needed. In addition, most lattice towers would be banned, as would speculative towers – those built “on spec” with no immediate use.

Again, common sense stuff. But even the most restrictive regulation of cell towers will not change the fact that they are unattractive, industrial installations that add nothing to the beauty of Southwest Colorado. And with that, maybe the county – perhaps with state or regional cooperation – could enter talks with the industry about how the fundamental nature of cellular communication can be made less visually intrusive.

Ridgelines are another concern. Commissioner Gwen Lachelt rightly observed, that while the county does not have ridgeline regulations, “To me, that doesn’t mean we can’t take every precaution to make sure that cellphone towers aren’t obstructing views.”

All of those are legitimate concerns, and the commissioners are correct to try to address them now before too many more cell towers are proposed. And if that next wave of towers comes slowly or not at all, the work that goes into any proposed regulations would still be well spent. The underlying questions apply to any number of issues and situations.

What the commissioners are right to ignore, however, are any questions of supposed health hazards, electronic emissions, frequencies and conspiracies. Not only does county government lack the expertise to properly investigate such complaints, it lacks the jurisdiction as well.

As Commissioner Lieb accurately said, cellphone tower emissions are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission – a situation that is unlikely to change. Nor should it. If every county had the authority to regulate the type and strength of cell-tower emissions, the United States would not have a national communications system. Indeed, we would be closer to relying on semaphores and smoke signals.

The county is right to look at the location and construction of cellphone towers. Those are legitimate areas of county concern. The commissioners are equally correct, however, to leave unfounded health scares and conspiracy theories out of the discussion.

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