Lack of cell towers is blessing, curse

When Sprint PCS failed to get a permit earlier this fall to build a 150-foot cellular communications tower on South Whidbey’s Swede Hill Road, people in the neighborhood who formed a group to oppose the structure’s construction were overjoyed.

“I don’t know how much influence this group of neighbors had,” said Steve Eward, who is a member of CAUTION (Citizens Against Unwanted Towers in Our Neighborhood). “We’re not really welcoming the cellular providers the way they would like.”

Though the group opposed the towers for reasons related to health, animal habitat and aesthetics, it was an Island County ordinance that was ultimately responsible for the permit’s failure. Written as one of the most restrictive cell tower standards in the state, the ordinance limits the height of towers, specifies how much unused land must surround them and sets standards for tower appearance that force cellular providers to do almost everything they can to disguise them.

While all of this may be good for people who do not like the towers for a variety of reasons including their microwave transmissions, fewer towers means poor cell phone reception on Whidbey Island.

Though there are six active permits for cell towers and antennae of various shapes and sizes in process at the Island County Planning Department, few of them are making it through. That is bad news for cell phone users and for landowners who stand to earn about $700 a month in rental fees from companies such as Sprint.

Jeremiah Ray, a Cultus Bay area land owner, said he has been trying to get a tower built on his land for five years. While it is Sprint who has to suffer through the permitting process, Ray said he and his wife could use the rental income to supplement the Social Security they plan to live on when they retire in a few years.

While he said he does understand the arguments against the towers, he said it is obvious islanders are not, for the most part, making the choice to do without cell phones them. People are still using cell phones and they do expect service.

“Either people on the island want cell phones or they don’t want cell phones,” he said.

Ray also said he believes cell phones are no longer just a luxury in the aftermath of Sept. 11. They are a necessary part of the nation’s communications network.

That is true when it comes to county-wide law enforcement. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said his deputies have been using the phones for several years because they are more reliable and more private than radios in many places on the island. For less than the cost of a single deputy, the sheriff’s office outfits all of its field staff with the phones. Having them allows deputies and detectives to handle many calls for service over the phone from the car, rather than responding to every call and thinning the agency’s physical coverage.

“We couldn’t live without them,” Hawley said.

He said his deputies know where the holes in cell phone reception are on the island and often have to drive out of areas south of Greenbank to make a call. The holes also make the agency unable to use portable computers in patrol cars, computers that could further speed deputies’ work.

One such hole was almost a life-threatening problem this week. When a young boy was struck by a car on Brooks Hill Road Tuesday, a witness to the accident was unable to call 911. There was no reception on her phone in that area just outside of Langley.

Currently, there are about 10 cellular installations of various types covering the length of the island. Reception is often best near the water, where cell towers on the mainland are able to pick up and transmit phone calls.

Reception varies from company to company. Nextel phone retailer Scott Lincoln said the phones he sells out of his Clinton computer business are more reliable than those served by some other companies. But, they do have their limitations. In some hilly, treed areas, the phones have no reception at all.

Chris Miller, a Seattle-area architect who helps Sprint PCS get tower permits in Island County, said earlier this month that Sprint is trying to improve the situation by applying to build five new cell towers between Coupeville and Clinton. Although he said Sprint has designed a system that requires the construction of as few towers as possible, the company still needs 150-foot structures to clear the tree height in most places.

Getting the permits in Island County, which MIller considers restrictive on its tower policy, is not going well.

“All the carriers are having the same issues,” he said.

Sprint has little choice but the keep trying. Miller said the Federal Communications Commission requires cellular companies to provide the best service possible within their system range. They have that obligation on Whidbey Island. Plus, the company’s customer service department is “bombarded” with complaints from customers who do not get reliable cell service.

If the cellular companies want to play ball in Island County’s limited cell phone park, they may have to build structures that do not look like cell towers. The county’s ordinance encourages the construction of towers that also serve as power poles, and the installation of small “whip” antennas. In an interview earlier this year, Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said permits for these alternative types of cell receivers and transmitters are “a slam dunk.”

Since 1990, the Island County Planning Department has handled about 40 permits for cellular receiving and transmitting installations. Companies who have made made the applications include Sprint PCS, Quest, VoiceStream, and SBA.

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