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Height makes blight

Are taller power poles tomorrow’s cell towers? Neighbors on Blakely Ave. hope not.

At the south end of the island, better cell phone coverage is on the horizon – literally.

That, thanks to the recent installation of a 45-foot tall utility pole, atop which a cellular communications antenna may soon rest.

“It’ll look like a big lollipop,” said Blakely Avenue resident David Snedeker, pointing from his dining room at the still-topless pole.

While adding a “lollipop” to the horizon might sweeten reception for some, Snedeker and other neighbors say it’s already souring their view.

For them, the problem began last month, when the pole was installed by cellular provider Verizon Wireless.

But the process leading up to that began several months earlier, when the company approached Jeff Powers – who owns property adjacent to Snedeker and Nick Nickum, Snedeker’s next-door neighbor – about co-locating on an existing power pole in the right-of-way. Equipment to support the antenna would be housed in a new 12-foot by 20-foot shelter, to be built on Powers’ property and leased by Verizon.

Such arrangements are common, according to Verizon spokesperson Georgia Taylor, because the company prefers to use existing structures, rather than build new ones.

But that, according to Snedeker and Nickum, is the first point of contention.

Last week crews installed a new 45-foot pole to replace the existing 30-foot pole.

Even though it’s half again as tall, the new pole is considered by the city as an “existing” structure because it occupies the same space as its predecessor.

Under the current code, the project wasn’t subject to environmental review, nor did it require public notice.

“We were notified via bulldozer,” Snedeker said.

The city did issue a building permit for the equipment structure planned for Powers’ property.

City planner Josh Machen said utility companies – the Blakely Avenue pole is owned by Puget Sound Energy – don’t need permission from the city to swap poles, regardless of the reason, as long as they heed the city’s maximum height requirements, in this case 45 feet.

“(Verizon) found a way to work within the requirements to achieve what they wanted,” Machen said. “It was a creative solution. I think we may end up seeing a few more of these.”

Like Snedeker, Nickum was surprised by the appearance of the taller pole, perfectly centered in his and his wife’s panoramic view from a hillside overlooking Rich Passage.

He sent a letter to the city on Monday demanding it revoke the building permit and require a review of the project that includes a public process.

He also sent a letter to Powers, accompanied by a copy of a covenant that Nickum says limits to 20 feet the height of structures in his view corridor.

“I don’t begrudge him using his property to make money,” Nickum said of Powers. “I do object to the covenant violation.”

Nickum, an attorney, said he hopes the neighbors can reach an amicable solution.

Meanwhile, Powers said he was caught off guard by the controversy the project has set off in his neighborhood. Had he anticipated such a strong reaction, he said, he wouldn’t have made the deal.

“I don’t want to be a neighborhood pariah,” he said. “I didn’t expect this big a flap. We’re trying to figure out how to solve this.”

Part of that effort included a trip to Nickum’s deck to look at the newly changed view, after which Powers admitted the pole was unsightly.

“It’s pretty obnoxious,” he said. “I can understand why they’re upset.”

Powers said he assumed neighbors had been notified of the project. Though he already signed a contract with Verizon, he asked – and the company agreed – to halt construction until the city can address some of the issues raised by neighbors.

Taylor said the company, too, is working to appease surrounding residents. The project is on hold for now.

“We’re going out of our way to be sensitive to the community,” she said. “But we did everything we were supposed to do. We have a fully executable building permit.”

Part of the issue, she said, is that as technology improves, expectations increase.

“People expect their cell phones to work,” she said. “Unfortunately we can’t just put our facilities anywhere – there’s definitely a method to it.”

In this case, the company is hoping to clear up spotty coverage at the south end of the island and beyond.

It is because of increased expectations, and better technology, that City Councilman Jim Llewellyn is proposing an ordinance that would allow the installation of cell towers in the “Neighborhood Service Centers” of Rolling Bay, Island Center and Lynwood Center.

As it stands now, towers can only be built in light manufacturing zones and on low-density residential parcels. Machen said the city hasn’t updated its wireless communication code since 1997.

The proposed ordinance, which was scheduled for discussion at Tuesday’s Land Use Committee meeting, is slated to go before the City Council on Nov. 14. Because Llewellyn owns property at Island Center, he said he will recuse himself from voting.

The ordinance would permit “facility III” communications arrays – the largest designation in the state – which can be up to 15 feet in height and as large as 100 square feet in surface area at the top of a tower or pole.

If installed, the new antenna at the south end of the island would be a “facility I” designation, up to four feet in height and 580 square inches in surface area atop the 45-foot pole.

The proposed ordinance is similar to one Llewellyn brought to the council a few years back.

“It didn’t get very far,” he said. “But now everyone has cell phones.”

He also said that towers nowadays can be erected inconspicuously.

“There are ways of dealing with them,” he said. “Most people don’t want them in their backyard, but some of them look just like a tree.”

Snedeker agreed that towers, when done right, aren’t a problem. That’s why he’s puzzled that Verizon chose the pole in front of his home.

Powers said he’s doing what he can to fix the problem, though he’s not sure how much he can do.

“There aren’t a lot of cards in my hands,” he said. “I’m really sweating this right now. I’m sorry there wasn’t a review.”

He also said the spread of cellular installations could be inevitable; Verizon told him there were two other south-end residents waiting in line behind him.

“They’re going to put in a tower someplace,” he said.

Snedeker, too, sees more towers on the horizon.

“This isn’t just about our neighborhood,” he said, shaking his head at the pole. “Coming soon to a telephone pole near you.”

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