Phone towers one foot shy of scrutiny

99-foot structures have county officials considering a change in requirements

AT&T Wireless is slipping three new communications towers under Douglas County’s regulatory radar.

The poles cleared for construction at the edges of Lawrence are tall enough to carry wireless signals for phone customers, but just short of 100-foot height limitation that would permit public comment, generate regulatory involvement and require approval from elected officials.

That has county officials thinking about lowering the bar for tower rules, even as they quietly issued building permits last week for projects that stop just a foot short of regulatory static — and leave neighbors wondering what might have been.

“I don’t know anything about it, but it’s approved,” said Melvin McClelland, a retired trucker who lives just up the street from one of the sites, this one at the edge of North Lawrence. “There isn’t anything I can do about it now.”

The projects are part of AT&T Wireless’ plans for 11 new towers in and around Lawrence, as the company fills system gaps and lines up customers throughout northeast Kansas.

Typically companies seek to share space on existing towers or buildings. Such moves adhere to government policies designed to reduce the proliferation of metal poles popping up across the urban and rural landscape.

Instead, each of AT&T Wireless’ new towers will rise only 99 feet above the ground.

A foot makes all the difference.

‘Last-resort deals’

“They’re building the network they can, within the parameters of the law — a network that works for them,” said Trevor Wood, a leasing coordinator for Selective Site Consultants Inc., an Overland Park-based company that secured the sites on behalf of AT&T Wireless. “They made all the efforts to be community-minded and to co-locate on other towers in the area, but that wasn’t really successful.

“These were kind of last-resort deals.”

One of those deals will put a tower northwest of Lawrence, at the southwest corner of the intersection of the Farmers Turnpike and the South Lawrence Trafficway. Two other communications towers are nearby, as is a water tower owned and operated by Douglas County Rural Water Dist. No. 6.

The water tower is 95 feet tall and is just north of the busy Kansas Turnpike, and that leaves little room for anyone to complain about the new metal pole disturbing a pastoral rural setting, said Don Fuston, who is leasing 4,900 square feet of his land to AT&T Wireless.

“Where this all comes from is federal aviation regulations,” said Fuston, who also serves as chairman of the water district. “Anything taller than 100 feet tall has to have a light on top. They’re doing this to cut down on expenses. That’s why they’re cutting it down to 99 feet. It’s obvious. You don’t have to be too smart to figure that out.”

Height restrictions

Aside from the expense of adding a flashing beacon that warns passing aircraft, the cost of proposing a tower at least 100 feet tall also can rise. Plans for new towers typically attract objections from surrounding property owners, which can postpone schedules or even kill a project altogether.

Planning a tower at least 100 feet tall requires that companies:

  • Secure a conditional-use permit, which starts by notifying all property owners within a mile of the project that a tower has been proposed; if enough property owners object, approval would require a unanimous vote of county commissioners.
  • Submit a detailed site plan of the tower’s design and location.
  • Provide enough space for the tower to collapse without endangering surrounding properties, and provide additional property to contain ice or other debris that might fall from a tower.
  • Locate the tower and equipment so that it has “the least possible visual effect” on the environment.

By stopping at 99 feet, all AT&T needed for the site near McClelland’s place was a $418.09 check for a building permit, payable to Douglas County. That’s the same permit cost for another tower at the northwest corner of the trafficway and U.S. Highway 40; the permit for the pole behind the water tower cost $461.29.

Future fears

The expense to the public is no voice in the process, said Keith Dabney, the county’s director of zoning and codes.

“They don’t have to comply with development standards or really do anything,” Dabney said. “We have already had three of these within a month. Who’s to say there won’t be maybe a dozen or more within the next year or so? They could just go along and put a tower here, here, here and here, with no thought or any checks and balances. It could be a significant problem.”

That’s why Dabney is busy drafting a set of new tower regulations for county commissioners to consider. The key would be lowering the height limit that triggers review.

But commissioners are warning him to be careful. Dropping the height one day could lead to review perameters that apply to a TV antenna attached to a homeowner’s roof.

“If you make it 75 (feet), you’ll have a generation of 74-and-a-half-foot towers,” Commissioner Charles Jones said. “You have to draw the line somewhere, and the line is 100 feet.”