County's cell tower law slowly takes shape

"Eventually, Island County's Board of Commissioners plan to pass an ordinance regulating construction of communication towers on Whidbey Island. When they do, it will regulate things like tower height, color and setbacks from roadways.And that almost happened at the commissioner's meeting in Coupeville last Monday, almost. The hot-button issue was continued to a public meeting set for March 20.Still, the ordinance is gradually taking a form both the commissioners and advocates of managing cell tower construction seemed to favor on Monday, with representatives from the latter group praising the commissioners for their efforts thus far.Among other things, the draft communication ordinance would: * Require any provider seeking a Type II or Type III tower application (those requiring County Director or Hearing Examiner approval) to hold a public meeting before submitting the permit. * Limit the height of communication towers to no more than 45 feet above the average height of the trees surrounding it.* Prescribe certain colors to blend in with the surrounding environment.* Require setbacks on all sides of the tower equal to the height of the tower.* Require new towers to accommodate up to three cell provider antennas.Problem is, since the County started drafting the ordinance last November, a dozen cell phone providers have submitted permits to build towers under the current, less restrictive system, which requires a conditional-use permit. Among other things, a conditional use permit doesn't limit tower height.We had a flood of applications at the beginning of the year, Commissioner Bill Thorn, D-Camano, said Tuesday. This is the so-called rush to the counter when any new ordinance is pending. It distresses the hell out of me, but that's what happens. We really want to put this thing to bed.Putting the proposed communication ordinance to bed has been a lengthy process, Thorn said, if a necessary one.This is a major issue for the public as well as the commissioners, Thorn said. And when it comes to things that affect the public in the ways cell towers do, that can really adversely affect the aesthetics of our surroundings, it's our responsibility to study the issues and respond to the best of our ability.Consequently, since Nov. 21, 1999, the commissioners and the public have participated in a series of seven meetings to craft the almost-finished ordinance. We want to make them as visibly unobtrusive as possible, said Coupeville resident Gary Piazzon. And once the technology becomes obsolete, ensure that the sites will be dismantled in a timely way.In fact, the last section of the current draft ordinance, requires a provider to remove any and all structures made obsolete by technology, or abandoned, within 180 days.Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke, said the reasons it's taken the county so long to craft the communications tower ordinance is because technology is changing so rapidly, so many people are so concerned about the impacts towers have on the island's pastoral views and cellular phone communication is both necessary, and, inevitable.We rely on cell phones in Island County a lot, Bakke said. The Sheriff's Department, fire fighters, ambulances. It is generally acknowledged they're starting to become a part of our lives."

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