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Washington City Sees Residents Fighting Cell Tower Build

Neighbors of the Blue Mountain Community Church have spent months searching for legal means to keep a cell tower out of their neighborhood, including pressuring the Walla Walla City Council.

Cell towers
(TNS) — Neighbors of the Blue Mountain Community Church have spent months searching for any legal means to stop a cell tower from intruding into their neighborhood, including pressuring Walla Walla City Council members into considering a moratorium.

Barbara Knudson, Pamela Culbreth and others have picketed and protested. They have made colorful signs to post in their neighborhood; they have conducted meetings and implored city officials to take action because they worry the tower will only be the beginning of an impending attack on their health and well-being.

Although health, environmental, and aesthetic concerns have been voiced, representatives of AT&T, Verizon and other carriers have made it clear that once the paperwork is filed on their behalf, there is little that local jurisdictions can do to stop the further development of cell towers in Walla Walla.

Now, some residents are realizing they likely will lose the battle against City Hall and the big phone companies. Others are holding onto hope that their last opportunity — voicing concerns before a hearing examiner — will be a successful strategy to keep the cell tower out.

A municipal code change made in October 2022 opened the door for cell tower companies to place wireless facilities in residential zones but on non-residential parcels such as houses of worship or offices.

The first application submitted since the code change proposes the construction of a 65-foot cell tower at 928 Sturm Ave. at the Blue Moutain Community Church.

Work session

When neighbors to the church learned about the possible development, some immediately leapt into action to oppose the tower being so close to their homes.

During the Feb. 21 City Council work session Walla Walla Mayor Tom Scribner called the meeting to order with an announcement.

"Our discussion of a moratorium got the attention of AT&T, Verizon and others," Scribner said. He continued to explain how federal law preempts local jurisdictions such as the city of Walla Walla from considering a moratorium on grounds of health or environmental concerns.

Walla Walla City Attorney Timothy Donaldson told the council about potential solutions to address the concerns of Walla Walla residents regarding the placement of cell towers in residential zones.

Donaldson reiterated the announcement made by Scribner to the council, explaining the Federal Communications Commission had control over wireless facilities.

What the FCC says about wireless facilities preempts any ordinance that a local jurisdiction tries to push forward. A moratorium on future cell tower development in Walla Walla would be a preempt ordinance, meaning it is inoperable.

In a nutshell, the ability to locally regulate wireless facilities is extremely limited.

Donaldson said concerns with Radio Frequency Emissions, or RFE, simply cannot be considered because they have been delegated to the FCC to decide what levels of RFE are safe and which wireless facilities can be licensed.

"Whether the FCC is doing its job or not doing its job is not something that the city of Walla Walla is able to police," Donaldson said. "I want to be clear. This isn't staff or myself saying that we don't care or that we agree with what the FCC has done. I'm just simply telling you that again, in the pecking order of things, the federal government has said the FCC decides these things, not the city of Walla Walla."

Citizens also spoke about their uneasiness about potential diminishment of property value if a tower is built. Donaldson said that according to the FCC, even those concerns are not applicable because they tie into health concerns.

"Council could go and say well, we're going to adopt one anyway, and I will tell you that as soon as the carrier could get into court, our moratorium would be enjoined from enforcing it," Donaldson said. "This is not something where you've asked me, and I am now giving you my opinion of what I think the law is, this is black letter."

With the possibility of a moratorium out the window, Donaldson offered a solution that could give the city a little wiggle room and would be discussed at the next day's City Council meeting.

'Our hands ... are pretty much tied'

Council members quickly ticked down the list of agenda items until they hit Item D, a public hearing about a proposed interim zoning ordinance and/or moratorium related to wireless communication facilities.

During the hearing, Scribner recapped the information discussed at the work session, emphasizing the city had no valid basis to impose a moratorium.

"Health and environmental issues are off the table for local jurisdictions per federal law as we were told in the lengthy email by the attorney from AT&T and as Mr. Donaldson reported yesterday," Scribner said at the City Council meeting. "We are not, as a council, unsympathetic or unsupportive of those we have heard from before and will probably hear from again, but unfortunately ... our hands, legally, are pretty much tied."

Scribner described the legal action the city could take.

"One of the things that Mr. Donaldson talked about the other day was a possible change in our zoning code," Scribner said.

The proposed interim code change aims to modify certain phrasing that would obligate cell tower applicants to demonstrate the necessity for coverage in the designated location, known as a "significant gap."

Scribner clarified that the applications would be evaluated by city personnel, and inadequate submissions could trigger a convoluted and costly review process.

When public comment began, Culbreth took the microphone. She has been advocating against the proposed cell tower that could go up directly behind her home. She also attended the work session the day before.

"I was informed that the stranglehold of the cellphone industry over towns and citizens that now threatens the aesthetics and peace of our own communities is stronger than we are," Culbreth said.

Knudson testified next. She urged the council to make the decision to accept the interim zone ordinance and protect the beauty of her neighborhood.

"We truly hope that retaining the beauty of this town is important to you and that you will show by voting to adopt this wireless interim zoning code until the current codes can be reviewed," Knudson said.

Janie Smith, another resident, said she fears what will happen to Walla Walla when the tower goes up. "Once you allow one in, it's just going to keep on coming," Smith said. "We're not talking about something on a small scale. We are talking about the health and the well-being of the people here."

Ray Culbreth, Pamela Culbreth's husband, also spoke, comparing his home to a ground zero. He said he would be able to see the tower from every window in his home.

"I chose to live in Walla Walla because it is a beautiful, small and diverse town with fresh air and clean water," Culbreth said. "Now much of that is to be spoiled by this unsightly, large and close cell tower that I cannot get away from."

AT&T and Verizon representatives also spoke during the meeting as well.

Lauren Paolini, area manager with AT&T in the external affairs and legislative department, addressed the council: "I did think that it was important for us to represent for the company tonight and for the industry, so I am here to answer any questions."

Paolini told the council that a revised conditional use permit had been submitted on Feb. 21 for consideration of the cell tower at 928 Sturm Ave.

Maridee Pabst of Busch Law Firm attended the meeting on behalf of AT&T to speak to the significant gap test which was language used in the proposed Interim Zone Ordinance.

"This has been used to decide whether a local regulation prohibits or has the effect of prohibiting wireless service," Pabst said. "It was adopted in the Ninth Cricut 18 years ago."

Pabst then went on to say the Significant Gap Test was rejected in 2018 by the FCC in favor of what is called the Materially Inhibit Test. Pabst said some jurisdictions in the region have gone back and amended their codes to reflect the Materially Inhibit Test and not the Significant Gap Test.

"In the end, AT&T asks that if the council decides to adopt an interim ordinance, it looked to have the language reflect the current state of the law," Pabst said.

Both representatives declined to comment to the Union-Bulletin.

Kim Allen, a member of the Wireless Policy Group and representative for Verizon, also spoke at the meeting via zoom. Allen echoed Pabst's request to update the language in the code if it is to be changed.

Council vote

After more than an hour of public comment, the council set to consider all of the statements that were made.

Scribner made it a point to address the group and said although the proposed tower at the church is not a done deal, any decision about an interim code ordinance would not affect that facility. The next chance to voice concerns will be with the hearing examiner, he said.

"Whatever decision that is made tonight by council does not end the process," Scribner said. "Most importantly you will have the opportunity to raise these issues and other issues to the hearing examiner."

Council member Gustavo Reyna advocated for waiting to make an informed decision, while council member Brian Casey argued that passing an ordinance as soon as possible was necessary because of the numerous unknowns.

Ultimately, the council struggled to make a decision and ended up tabling the issue until the next work session for Monday, March 6, and meeting Wednesday, March 8, when a finalized draft of an interim code ordinance is expected to be discussed.

What now?

Ray Culbreth said he is upset that the city changed the code in the first place.

"I am impacted with this unsightly and unsafe cell tower going up literally in my backyard, just a few hundred feet my home," Culbreth said. "This matter should never have reached this point as the city failed to properly perform their duties and gather the proper information and address the community comments, which were overwhelmingly vote in favor with this cell tower going up in a residential area."

Mary Gibson lives in the same neighborhood. She said she took it upon herself to become informed about wireless facility technology when she received the city's notice of application for a cell tower.

She said her research led to her understanding just how dangerous the technology is.

Gibson attended the council meeting and said she didn't agree with the council's decision to omit a moratorium. "In my view, the City Council should continue ahead with a moratorium, and not allow us all to be bullied by the cellphone companies and the FCC," Gibson said.

She said she thinks the right thing to do is to not allow cell tower technology so close to homes in residential neighborhoods.

"It does feel like a David and Goliath situation," Gibson said. "It seems like the Blue Mountain Community Church is siding with Goliath."

Michele Lucas said she had first heard about the tower proposal from her next-door neighbor who had received a notice of application by mail.

"There were only a handful of people who were directly notified about this project, in spite of the fact that it impacts a much wider range of households," Lucas said. "My initial reaction was of surprise followed by disbelief that it would actually happen."

Lucas said she believes the council will implement the interim ordinance once it is revised by Donaldson.

"The revision and delay were needed once the AT&T representative provided a smoke and mirrors presentation about their process change in determining where these towers should be installed," Lucas said.

She said she is still hopeful the hearing examiner will veto the project.

"There has been no one from our neighborhood stating they wanted this tower," Lucas said. "Even individuals from Blue Mountain Church have not been present at the City Council to speak in favor of the tower."

Barbara Knudson said she is upset about the lack of concern the council has had regarding the wireless facility.

"The City Council, and planning have ignored all health, safety and environmental concerns, the premise for requesting a code change was to stop these dangerous installations until a code that is responsible can be put in place," Knudson said. "The marginal interim ordinance change that gave little protection will more than likely be changed to accommodate the requests of the wireless groups."

Knudson said Walla Walla's wireless code is not safe, fair or responsible.

"We can only say we tried," Knudson said. "The majority of the City Council will again be trading our health, safety and environment for better cellular service and fulfilling the wishes of the cellular groups."

© 2023 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.