Opinion

If it gets taller, is it still the same pole?

A noted (if endlessly pedantic) philosopher once argued as axiomatic the idea that “existence exists.”

Her point was that awareness necessarily implies objective reality and substance for the person perceiving, if not in fact for the object or concept being perceived.

In simplest terms, you cannot say that something doesn’t exist without at least proving your own existence by saying so. Ipso facto, existence exists.

Clearly, no one’s going to deny the “existence” of a utility pole off Blakely Avenue, carrying wires along a hillside overlooking the serene valley of West Blakley and Rich Passage beyond. But it’s a curious concept upon which to justify the imminent siting of a cellular communications antenna on that particular pole.

Last week, the pole was 30 feet tall; this week, it measures 45 feet. So that last 15 feet of pole clearly didn’t exist, certainly not for the purpose for which the pole was originally put there.

As reported on today’s front page, neighbors are vexed by an apparent loophole in the local municipal code by which cellular apparatus can be placed on existing structures without much review or public notice. The cellular provider says it’s within its legal rights in using the Blakley Avenue pole, and the city planning department seems to agree. Yet the net result is a visual blight for homeowners uphill of the facility, one that could have been mitigated by placing the antenna down the road, or simply not raising the pole.

Ah, cell phones. Everyone complains about cellular coverage on Bainbridge Island, but few would want a new tower to go up on their street. Meanwhile, the phones themselves get more commonplace by the hour; you’d be surprised who carries one these days. Finding a balance between the two imperatives – acceptable coverage for customers on one hand, community aesthetics on the other – is the province of our city through its municipal code.

The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prevents local governments from banning cell towers outright, but it still allows considerable regulatory latitude. The anti-billboard group Scenic America (motto: “Change is inevitable. Ugliness is not.”) reminds us that the proliferation of cellular facilities can be controlled in a number of ways.

These include restricting the types and heights of facilities based on zoning; limiting tower height relative to nearby trees and buildings; imposing screening and other visual standards; and considering the sheer number of facilities needed in a community to ensure decent coverage.

In fairness, the Blakely Avenue project does achieve one very laudable goal: “co-location,” or placing a new antenna on something that’s already there rather than building a brand new tower. But there’s still the problem of that extra 15 feet – and the prospect of this scenario repeating itself in neighborhoods all over the island.

Clearly, it’s time to revisit the local code and refine our expectations for cellular facilities, and we’re glad the City Council is doing so.

In the meantime, should the Blakely Avenue project be snared in its leap through the loophole and wind up before a hearing examiner, it would be fun to hear someone try to explain how exactly a pole can be raised, stretched, inflated or otherwise expanded – replaced with something taller – yet still fit the definition of “existent.”

Yes, existence exists. But it also comes in different sizes.

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