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Sonneland offer falls on deaf ears

A Spokane communications company wants to give $3,500 to charity instead of spending it on dismantling its illegal antenna on a mountaintop south of Post Falls.

A First District Court judge has ordered Courtesy Communications to remove the tower from Blossom Mountain because it violates state and county laws. Owner John Sonneland, a Spokane physician and former Republican congressional candidate, has until May 31 to tear down the tower.

Sonneland said there’s no reason for him to dismantle the inactive tower and that it would hurt nothing to leave it on the property. He estimates it would cost $3,500 to remove the antenna and he would rather donate the cash to a charity such as United Way.

“It’s totally senseless,” Sonneland said. “It’s my property, my capital investment. I want to leave it there and give the money to charity.”

Sonneland sprung the proposal on Kootenai County Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker and Commissioner Rick Currie after a candidate forum this week. Panabaker and Currie are both seeking re-election in next week’s Republican primary.

Sonneland came to the forum, with a $3,500 check made out to “A Coeur d’Alene or Kootenai County charity,” because he said the commissioners aren’t responsive to him.

“There’s no way that we can take that $3,500 offer,” Panabaker said. “It’s a judge’s order to have that stuff out of there in 11 days. There’s nothing we can do about that.”

Currie said the county can’t barter, as Sonneland has suggested.

“You can’t commit an offense and now get out of this because you give money to charity,” Currie said. “It’s very noble but not the way the system should work.”

Earlier this month, the commission denied Sonneland’s request for a conditional use permit to operate the existing antenna and other equipment from Blossom Mountain. The commission also denied a variance to allow the one-acre commercial operation in a rural area.

Courtesy Communications provides pager and cell phone service throughout North Idaho and Eastern Washington.

Sonneland needed the county permit to make the tower, built in 1984, legal. Because the commission rejected the requests, saying Sonneland’s attempts to rectify the situation were too late, the court requires that Sonneland remove the tower.

Sonneland hasn’t been able to use the tower since August, when the judge ordered him to stop transmitting until he complied with state and county law. Sonneland has said he has switched to using the Fancher Beacon, which is south of Spokane’s Felts Field, to transmit signals.

The county has battled with Sonneland for years over the tower, and officials claim he has violated almost every zoning law that applies to rural areas.

Sonneland said he never knew there was a problem with the tower until 2001. He said the delay in resolving the situation was because the commission wouldn’t communicate with him.

Sonneland said he asked the commission for a meeting in 2002 but didn’t get a response. In the July 2002 letter requesting a hearing, Sonneland and representatives from two other companies using the Blossom Mountain tower offered the commission cash.

Sonneland along with Damon Vetsch of Day Wireless and Wesley R. Hamilton of Switzer Communications asked that the commissioners come look at the Blossom Mountain tower and then have a public hearing regarding the zoning problem.

For their attendance, Sonneland and the other companies wrote that they “would be happy to contribute for each of our guests $100 for the county or, in the alternative, to a charity of your choice.” The commission never responded.

Panabaker said Sonneland is welcome to try to fix the antenna problems and go back through the county process to get the permit needed to operate a tower in a rural zone.

“It’s out of our hands,” Panabaker said. “The judge’s order stands and that’s what we have to live with.”