City's challenge

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board December 21, 2011 06:04 pm

The case of Baker City’s newest cell phone tower raises an interesting conundrum for City Hall.

But the episode also gives the city a chance to possibly mend fences with some residents, and avoid controversies.

Last winter T-Mobile applied for a conditional-use permit to install a 50-foot tower and a 220-square-foot building on Spring Garden Hill.

As required by state law, the city notified by letter only those property owners — five — whose parcels are within 100 feet of the property where the cell phone was proposed.

One of those owners, Ted Dockweiler, who lives at the northern base of the hill, attended a planning commission meeting. Dockweiler told commissioners that strong winds whistle through the power line that already crosses the hill, and that he hoped the cell tower wouldn’t worsen the noise.

The Commission voted unanimously to approve T-Mobile’s application. Commissioners added one condition related to the appearance of the tower — its surface must be “non-reflective.”

When the tower went up earlier this fall, the sight both surprised, and bothered, some residents.

Linda Wunder Wall, who lives near Dockweiler, didn’t receive a notice in the mail because her property doesn’t extend up the hill as Dockweiler’s does.

But Wall argues that the 100-foot notification requirement is insufficient for structures such as the cell tower because, unlike much lower buildings such as a house or garage, the tower can be seen from a considerable distance.

And its position near the crest of the hill adds to its conspicuousness.

Wall makes a credible point.

The purpose of the notification requirement is to make sure property owners who could be affected by a building have the chance to give their opinions to the decision-makers — in this case, the city planning commission.

And clearly the visual effect of T-Mobile’s cell tower extends beyond 100 feet.

Trouble is, quantifying visual effects is a tricky matter.

It’s more difficult, and subjective, than measuring the decibels that a factory produces, or counting the cars that park at a store.

As Jenny Long, the city’s planner, pointed out, the planning commission, were it to deny an application based on visual effects, would struggle to define the reasons in a way that would stand up to a legal challenge.

But the issue here isn’t whether the city can, or should, block a project because residents don’t like the way it looks.

Rather, the point is how diligent the city should be in notifying residents about applications before a decision is made.

We’d like city officials to look into increasing the 100-foot limit for proposed buildings that, like the T-Mobile tower, are widely visible due to their height.

To be fair, the city, in addition to sending letters to nearby property owners, also publishes a legal notice of conditional-use permit applications in the newspaper.

But the latter obviously isn’t as effective as mailing a letter directly to a property owner.

A wider reach might have avoided some of the controversy associated with T-Mobile’s tower.

Wall’s main concern isn’t the tower itself, but the building at its base, which houses a backup generator and other support equipment.

Long said T-Mobile officials are willing to try to screen the building from view, or paint it so the structure blends in.

Had Wall and others who live near Spring Garden Hill been aware of the application last winter, they could have lobbied the city to require T-Mobile to design the building to be less conspicuous in the first place.