How did we miss the pole?

We should probably get to more public meetings than we do these days, especially given that, hey, it’s our job. So there’s a certain professional chagrin at having the proposal for a 60-foot communications tower at the Hidden Cove ball fields sneak up on us this week.

Where were we? Then again, like the lay public, we in the newspaper trade count on public notice requirements for a reminder of the significant decisions coming under consideration by our local boards and councils. And never in a thousand years would we have guessed that a communications pole could be approved for a Bainbridge park without a public hearing by park officials themselves.

As reported on today’s front page, a Kirkland-based outfit called Clearwire is seeking permits to construct a 60-foot monopole at the north-end ball fields, to provide internet access to customers in that area. The company approached the park district about several other island sites as well, including Eagledale Park, but were rebuffed for aesthetic reasons. The ball field site was seen as okay, park director Terry Lande tells us, because it’s an active recreation area rather than a passive, more contemplative setting.

The park board didn’t hold a formal hearing, which puzzles us, so we put that question to park board member Kirk Robinson. As we understand his comments, the board reasoned that since there was no opposition to cellular antennas at Battle Point Park a few years ago, there would be no opposition to communications facilities in other parks either.

Hm. As we recall, at issue at Battle Point was whether to allow cellular antennas on an existing water tower, itself an eyesore that the public has put up with for decades. (The general consensus: the antennas couldn’t make the tower any uglier than it was already.) That’s hardly analogous to constructing a new, freestanding pole in a different park altogether. As to the question of whether allowing a privately owned communications tower at the Hidden Cove fields represents the commercialization of community parks, Robinson made a deft sidestep. “We see it as a way to raise some revenue in a relatively unobtrusive manner,” he said. He went on to suggest that the ubiquity of personal electronic devices – cell phones, Blackberries, laptops with wireless connections – has softened public concern over towers and other facilities that support them.

With that, at least, we agree. Ten years ago, mobile phones were seen as the narrow province of snobs; today, they’re carried by veritable legions of loudmouths convinced that everyone within a 30-foot radius is interested in their business dealing and personal lives, whether they’re sitting on the ferry, in a restaurant or on the airport tarmac. As to a commercial monopole in a community park, maybe Robinson is right and nobody cares anymore; but maybe they do, and a formal public hearing would seem the expected venue to ask that question.

No doubt our park board will counter: “At least we talked about it. Where were you?” Touché. But it turns out that while the tower was discussed at four different park board meetings since last August, only once was it acually advertised on the evening’s agenda – and then only blandly as “Clearwire contract,” with no reference to what it actually involved.

Yes, we could all pay closer attention. But the park district could certainly give better notice.

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