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Spokane’s cell tower moratorium ends with stricter rules

South Hill resident Patricia Hansen stands in front of a so-called “stealth tower,” a cellular phone tower at 25th Avenue and Monroe Street on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. It is designed to look like  a flag pole. Hansen took an interest in cell tower placement and permitting and helped the city of Spokane come up with guidelines for how the towers are sited. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
South Hill resident Patricia Hansen stands in front of a so-called “stealth tower,” a cellular phone tower at 25th Avenue and Monroe Street on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. It is designed to look like a flag pole. Hansen took an interest in cell tower placement and permitting and helped the city of Spokane come up with guidelines for how the towers are sited. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A six-month ban on new cellular towers in the city of Spokane has resulted in tighter rules for where they can be located.

The new rules, which end a moratorium on the towers, were praised and passed unanimously by the Spokane City Council this week.

Councilman Mike Allen, who helped lead negotiations among city staff, telecommunication company representatives and neighborhood advocates, thanked nearly everyone in the council chambers for working toward an agreeable consensus. It was a long way from six months ago, when Allen had predicted a lawsuit as all but certain after the council unanimously approved a moratorium on cell tower construction in the city.

Patricia Hansen, a Cliff-Cannon neighborhood resident who helped craft the new rule, said many obstacles were overcome to get there.

“There was such fear about doing this,” she said. “I was pleasantly stunned with how congenial it was.”

The vote creates a “hierarchy of preferred locations” for the towers. It places new rules on companies that propose building cell towers in, or within 150 feet of, residential zones. According to the new law, companies must first attempt to put towers on existing cell facilities or “structures of a similar height to avoid construction of new towers.” Companies must also first look to city property or facilities, as well as industrial, office and commercial zones, before the city will allow them to build a tower on a residential parcel.

“We can’t outright ban it, but you can set up proper hierarchies,” said Council President Ben Stuckart.

The city also strengthened “stealth” provisions in the code, requiring companies to build “visually unobtrusive” towers that blend into the surrounding area. The codes even stipulate that if a tower is designed to look like a tree, it must be a native variety.

“Stealth and concealment techniques do not include incorporating faux-tree designs of a kind that are not native to the Pacific Northwest,” the new rules mandate.

Councilman Jon Snyder said federal law limits to “aesthetics” what sort of regulations cities can place on cell towers.

“We’re pretty limited in what we can do,” Snyder said. “We had not updated regulations in a long time. … The stealth requirement was really easy to dodge.”

A tower proposed in Grandview-Thorpe already was approved and permitted when the moratorium was put in place in March, and it was completed earlier this year. As a Verizon spokesman noted when contacted earlier this year, the “stealth” tower is a “monopine” intended to look like a tree.

Snyder called the new rules “good policy” that were only achieved because the council put itself under a six-month deadline to create a new policy, a consultant was brought in to help craft the new law and both the neighborhood and companies brought lawyers to the table.

“Sometimes, not always, more lawyers come up with a better outcome. This is one of those cases,” Snyder said. “If we did that with every big issue at the city, we’d have good outcomes. But we can’t always do that.”

The council vote follows a six-month moratorium on cell tower permitting in the city, which was implemented after residents in the Grandview-Thorpe and Cliff-Cannon neighborhoods said towers were being built on residential lots without input from neighbors.

Snyder said the city avoided litigation by the all-in participation from the various groups interested in the matter. At the time, Allen said the odds of a lawsuit were “somewhere north of 99 percent.”

But as negotiations began, the city hired a consultant versed in the rapidly evolving telecommunications law, and one Cliff-Cannon resident hired an attorney to represent the neighborhood.

“We probably avoided litigation from the neighborhood folks or the companies,” Snyder said.

It was the agitation of Hansen, a resident of Cliff-Cannon, in particular that led to the new rules. When a 60-foot tower was proposed to be built at 811 W. 15th Ave. on the South Hill last year, Hansen circulated a petition to block construction and held meetings about the projects at her house. AT&T has since withdrawn its application for the site and is working with the neighborhood to find a more acceptable location, associate city planner Tami Palmquist said.

Hansen said a “bluebird from the city” notified her of the project nearly 22 months ago, and it’s been an uphill battle nearly the whole way.

“I almost immediately knew that I was up against some big folks here,” she said. To face such foes, Hansen hired a lawyer from Bricklin and Newman, and now she has a $16,000 bill to pay.

“She hired a lawyer to represent that neighborhood’s interest and figure out how to get a good ordinance out of this,” Stuckart said. “It was her choice, but it was a smart choice, because in this instance everyone was really pleased.”

But now Hansen is looking for ways to pay off her attorney debt and is planning to solicit donations. She has signed an agreement with Futurewise for a “fiscal sponsorship,” which will allow donations to be tax-deductible.

In an email she sent to council members Monday evening, Hansen said the attorney bill is a burden but well worth it.

“This cell tower ordinance process is over for the City but not me or the Neighborhood,” she wrote. “Essentially, doing the right thing placed a huge debt in my name. This final chapter of the cell tower ordinance won’t be over until I fundraise to pay off this bill.”

Hansen pushed members to come up with “another option besides hiring an attorney” for neighborhoods.

Snyder said neighborhoods are technically a part of the city, so the city can’t represent them in such matters. Still, he suggested that a fund be created to help pay for similar situations in the future.

“I wish there was a pool of money out there,” he said, noting that he had heard other neighborhoods have offered to help pay for Hansen’s legal fees because what she did “helped the entire city.”

For her part, Hansen said hiring a lawyer ultimately helped everyone get along.

“There was so much fear tied to the moratorium that it almost didn’t happen. ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to get sued,’ ” she said. “In the end it turned out great, but it didn’t come without some growing pains. It took some courage, but we didn’t have to sue each other. Looking back, would I still do what I did? Absolutely. It’s a necessity to have this ordinance.”

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