Judge blocks Fall Lake cell phone towerA judge last Wednesday blocked AT&T’s plan to build a 450-foot cell-phone tower near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Lake County, ruling that the proposed tower with its flashing airplane safety lights would hurt the “scenic and aesthetic resources” of the wilderness.
By: Lake County News-Chronicle, Associated Press, Lake County News Chronicle
A judge last Wednesday blocked AT&T’s plan to build a 450-foot cell-phone tower near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Lake County, ruling that the proposed tower with its flashing airplane safety lights would hurt the “scenic and aesthetic resources” of the wilderness.
Hennepin County District Judge Philip Bush ruled that a smaller, unlighted tower of up to 199 feet would be acceptable and that wireless service would be adequate.
Local officials said the judge’s standard of what will suffice for coverage in the area is a disappointment.
“When I read that I just got the feeling that Lake County doesn’t matter,” county administrator Matt Huddleston said. He said a shorter tower will not provide coverage in homes in the area.
The judge said “on street” coverage was adequate with the shorter tower, meaning coverage would be spotty inside structures.
Fall Lake Township Supervisor Mary Tome said residents in the area are being treated like “second-class citizens” by being told to go outside to make a phone call. “It’s disappointing,” she said.
Bush, who heard the lawsuit in April, sided with the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The group argued that the 450-foot tower’s flashing lights would be visible from several lakes and waterways within the BWCAW.
Paul Danicic, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, called the ruling “a major victory for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Boundary Waters every year, and for the wilderness’s scenic vistas and wildlife.”
“We hope AT&T will pursue without further delay a tower plan that expands cell service in the area for local residents, while preserving the most popular wilderness area in the country,” Danicic wrote in a news release.
AT&T Mobility LLC contended that one tall tower would do the best job of extending cell-phone service along the Fernberg Road east of Ely and allow paddlers in remote areas to call for help in emergencies. The phone company said there was no good alternative to the 450-foot tower, and lawyers for AT&T wrote in a pre-trial filing that improved wireless coverage “could literally make the difference between life and death” for BWCAW visitors.
It also stated that the tall tower would be the most economical way to provide coverage in the area.
At issue was whether the 450-foot tower would violate the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which lets citizens sue to protect natural resources that are in danger of being impaired. The judge ruled that the larger tower would violate the law but that a smaller tower would not. He rejected AT&T’s argument that improved cell service is needed within the BWCAW for public safety and reminded the company that financial considerations can not be made when considering MERA cases.
Bush found that a 450-foot tower would have “a qualitative and severe adverse effect on the scenic views from at least 10 significant areas” within the BWCAW, which was established by federal law in 1964 and sits on Minnesota’s border with Ontario.
The proposed site is near Fall Lake in Lake County, just more than a mile outside the BWCAW boundary. The tower would sit on a 150-foot-high ridge, lifting it about 600 feet over most of the surrounding landscape. Federal Aviation Administration regulations would require the tower to have flashing lights around the clock.
AT&T had already started construction preparations when Friends filed its lawsuit in June 2010, but agreed to suspend work while the case was pending. The Lake County Board approved the tower in February 2010 as a way to improve cell-phone coverage.
Bush said AT&T should have provided the county with more information on options for the area so it could have made a more informed decision on the conditional use permit it allowed. Such a permit is needed in the county for any towers over 199 feet.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said Wednesday the company is reviewing the ruling and considering its options.
“We continue to believe the county’s well-considered decision to approve this important public-safety facility was correct,” Richter said in a statement.
Lake County’s Huddleston said the next move is up to the company but a shorter tower might have to go somewhere else to provide the best coverage.
Tome said she told AT&T representatives to “not drop the ball” on the case. She said a new tower location would be difficult and likely require clearing land. She said the goal of the project was to eliminate carving more out of the wilderness for multiple towers.