Nothing compares to a neighborhood cell tower fight

Having gotten a decent night’s sleep after Tuesday’s lengthy City Commission meeting, I now have to admit it’s been kind of a treat the last couple of weeks pinch-hitting on the City Hall beat for our colleague (and now new boss) Chad Lawhorn.

Admittedly, though, that wasn’t exactly what I was thinking at the time, when a debate over the placement of a cellphone tower in East Lawrence dragged on for about an hour and a half.

For political reporters, and probably just about everyone else, there is nothing quite so excruciating as a lengthy debate over zoning issues.

At their core, though, zoning battles are also one of the purest kinds of political conflict. And it’s a type of conflict that doesn’t often occur over here at the Statehouse, where debates often focus on abstract, ideological differences, and the real people who are affected by the decisions are rarely seen or heard from.

The legendary columnist Molly Ivins once described zoning battles as “the very guts of government, where we see the interests of one party come into conflict with the interests of another.” I see them as clashes between two sacred, yet often diametrically opposing principles of the American government: individual rights vs. community rights.

Tuesday night, the battle was between the interests of Verizon Wireless, LLC, which wants to put up a 120-foot tower to improve its coverage in East Lawrence, and the owners of an adjoining parcel who worried that if the 120-foot tower ever fell down, it would crush their building, which houses Free State Brewing Company’s bottling plant.

Also involved in the discussion were a number of neighborhood residents who simply don’t want to look out their windows and see a giant cellphone tower. It’s a viewpoint that highlights another contradiction in our political culture: the competing ideas of private property and public landscapes.

This battle in East Lawrence has been going on for a while. The first site Verizon proposed got rejected in December amid vehement opposition from nearby residents, resulting in a federal lawsuit. Although that lawsuit is still pending, Verizon came back in May to propose another site, on a largely undeveloped lot in an industrial area on Moodie Road.

The owner of that parcel, however, reportedly wants to keep future development options open, and so Verizon was asked to place the tower near a corner of the property, just a few feet from the north property line. Problem was, just on the other side of that property line sits a building that houses Free State Brewing Company’s bottling plant.

So, while one property owner would enjoy all the benefits of rental income from the tower, the other property owner would bear substantial risk if the tower should ever fall down.

Here at the Kansas Statehouse, you hear a lot of impassioned debate about the sanctity of private property rights. In most cases, though, the debates are largely theoretical, and the contest is over which brand of governmental-powers ideology will win out.

The prevailing view in this building can be broadly described as “strong libertarian,” something passed down in the state’s political culture from the frontier days when Kansas was just a sparsely populated, agrarian state. The prevailing mindset is that government should not be in the business of telling individuals what they can or can’t do with (or on) their own private property.

It’s a belief system that works well out in farm country where someone’s closest neighbor might live a mile or more down the road. There, if a man walks out of his house stark naked, toting a shotgun over his shoulder, just to go check his mail, the chances are slim that anyone will notice. And if he wants to put up a 100-foot windmill on his property and paint it an ugly color of pink, it’s really nobody’s business but his.

But rural libertarianism tends to run into problems in most urban communities, where walking naked in public and putting up ugly towers tend to upset the neighbors. Except maybe Topeka where the whole walking-naked-in-public issue is apparently still in kind of a gray area.

Urban communities tend to be governed by what might be called the Oliver Wendell Holmes theory of individual liberties: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

That’s the whole basis behind zoning laws, which exist for the expressed purpose of telling people what they can and can’t do with their own property. Because in urban communities, what one person does with his or her own property can have a direct impact on the health and safety of others and the value of their property.

In the end, city commissioners struck what many hope will be a workable compromise: Verizon can put up its 120-foot tower somewhere on that piece of property. But it will have to be at least 130 feet away from the bottling plant, a distance that will still keep it largely out of view of most nearby residents.