Flagstaff's planning and zoning commission decided against making a decision on whether to approve the construction of a new cellphone tower planned for a forested area behind Trinity United Methodist Church.
The proposed tower has proven be controversial among nearby residents, but the public's concern wasn’t the reason the commission held off on making a final decision.
Both Trinity Heights United Methodist Church and Verizon Wireless, which the tower is meant to serve, failed to hold any kind of public neighborhood meeting addressing the project prior to the commission's own Wednesday public hearing on the subject.
A public meeting is required by city code for a re-zoning case to move forward, and as a result the commission postponed any decision on the tower's approval until a Feb. 13 meeting to allow Verizon and the church to schedule the required neighborhood meeting.
That, however, didn't stop nearby residents from explaining their case on why the tower is inappropriate and unnecessary to the commission.
One such resident was Brooks Hart, who lives directly across from the church on Appalachian Road. He said he would be able to see the tower every day and pointed out that the tower is in a residential zone and is a disfavored site, according to the zoning code. A favored site would be one built in a more commercial area.
But at Wednesday's meeting, Steve Kennedy, a radio frequency engineer working on behalf of Verizon, said the tower is necessary for two reasons. First, the company needs it to provide capacity for the increasing number of cellphones people are using in the area, and second, to provide better service inside buildings and vehicles along East Lockett Road.
Kennedy added they selected the spot because the cell towers surrounding the location of East Lockett all show they are being strained for capacity.
“Existing subscribers are over-utilizing their network; the network is not able to take care of them. So we have to design a cell [tower] to take care of all the users,” Kennedy said.
As evidence, Kennedy pointed to the findings of the free website RootMetrics, which measures the speed of networks as well as call performance.
The RootMetrics map describing the speed of the Verizon network in the area shows there are slower speeds around the area along Fourth Street south of Lockett Road, including sections of the Sunnyside neighborhood. Kennedy said the new tower would help improve these speeds.
But Hart pointed out that the map has no data for service speeds along Lockett Road, an area that Verizon specifically calls for.
In addition, Hart drew attention to the RootMetrics map of call performance. That map has a more complete map showing data all along Lockett Road, Fourth Street and the neighborhood to the north of where Verizon wants to erect its tower. That map shows good performance for phone calls throughout the area.
“They didn’t provide any kind of empirical data,” Hart told the commission. “Let it suffice to say, you’re being bamboozled.”
No one went out with tools to measure the level of service in the area, Hart said. Instead, Verizon is building its case around free websites and phone apps.
Hart continued to point to a city code that states that before a new cell tower is constructed, an applicant must show they have already maximized their use of existing towers within the city. Hart pointed to an existing tower just south of Flagstaff that Verizon owns and is not being used to its fullest potential.
Another complaint of residents is the short notice they received that a tower was being considered. Neighboring residents were only notified of the project about three weeks ago by a public notice posted by the church.
However, church officials might not have been able to inform residents about the cell tower planned to be built after signing a nondisclosure agreement as part of the contract.
Jeannine Braggs, a spokesperson for Verizon, said it is not unusual for residents to find out about a cell towers construction shortly before it goes up for approval with the municipality as the process for planning these projects can take many years.
Braggs could not speak to the use of a nondisclosure agreement, but said such agreements are not unheard of.
If the tower is built, the whole site will be just a few feet north of the original location behind the church. This is because of the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that runs under the church’s parking lot.
Joseph Simonsen, the operations manager for Kinder Morgan in the Flagstaff area, said the company had been informed by Verizon that it was looking to build a tower a few years ago, but had not been informed of the exact location or timeline for construction until early last week.
Some nearby residents had been concerned about the construction of a tower and the installation of electric utilities under a high-pressure gas pipeline, but Simonsen said if construction is done properly there is really nothing to fear.
And with close to 70,000 miles of gas pipelines controlled by Kinder Morgan, there are plenty of places where water, sewer and electric utilities cross the pipeline.
Kinder Morgan took no position on the construction of the tower, Simonsen said, only wanting to make sure that if construction does occur near the gas pipeline, it is done properly. Kinder Morgan is in contact with Verizon about the project.