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City to take a new look at cell towers.

Byline: JOE MOSLEY The Register-Guard

Two words: Garden Avenue.

It could serve as a rallying cry for those who believe Eugene's siting standards for cellular telephone towers - among the country's first when adopted 5 1/2 years ago - are due for an overhaul.

And the case of Garden Avenue promises to be one of those most scrutinized when city staff begin a review of the cell tower standards sometime next summer, with likely revisions by the City Council to follow.

"I don't want to minimize what a high-quality ordinance (the current one) was when it was enacted," Councilor David Kelly says. "I think the ordinance is still 90 percent solid. So in wording, (any eventual changes) may be just 10 percent. But in effect, there could be some very positive changes."

Under the existing city ordinance, Verizon Wireless Inc. was granted approval more than a year ago to build an 80-foot cell tower in the back parking lot of the Travelodge motel at 1859 Franklin Blvd., near the University of Oregon campus.

But 10 houses or apartments on Garden Avenue lie within 100 feet of the tower site - one of them no more than 20 feet away.

"Most places have (requirements) that you can't have one of these towers within 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet of a home," says Don Knight, owner of the Onsen hot tub rental and sales business, along with several of the Garden Avenue homes.

"I know that just that alone would have prevented this tower from going up."

The Eugene ordinance requires a rigorous conditional use permit process for any company seeking to build a cell tower in a residential zone, and there have been no such applications. But the restriction doesn't apply in the case of Garden Avenue because, despite its mostly residential flavor, the entire area is zoned for mixed commercial use.

The Eugene ordinance has no requirement for a setback between potential cell tower sites and neighboring homes, which many cities and counties have since included. For instance, Lane County adopted an ordinance in April that requires minimum setbacks of 1,000 feet.

"So the setback issue will be a biggie," Kelly predicts.

Among other potential changes mentioned earlier this month, when city councilors asked the planning staff to review the ordinance, are independent professional reviews of all siting applications to ensure that issues such as tower height and possible "collocation" of multiple antennae on existing towers are accurately addressed.

"We have no one on staff who can do anything but accept at face value a cell tower applicant's statement that, 'No, we can't collocate,' ' Kelly says.

Councilor Nancy Nathanson - who took the lead in crafting the original ordinance - is also recommending that the city consider new requirements that cell companies guarantee their antennae and towers are removed if they are no longer used, that no interference with public safety communications will be tolerated, and that ground-level control boxes, often the size of refrigerators, be discreetly sited and screened whenever possible.

Nathanson suggests that the city may even want to consider a preference for aesthetically disguised cell towers, such as the faux palm trees and saguaro cacti that have sprung up during recent years in the Southwest.

"There is a great desire to protect the public interest," Nathanson says. "But part of the public interest is that consumers want to be able to use their cell phones, and we also need to make sure we allow for adequate infrastructure.

"So we really need to balance competing interests. We'll need to protect neighborhoods, especially residential neighborhoods, but there's not going to be a way for us to provide for cell phone use in Eugene and also prohibit all towers and antennae."

Jan Childs, the city's planning division manager, says the cell tower update will amount to a major task and will have to wait until her staff finishes reviewing and amending the city's land use code, probably sometime after next June.

A total of 34 wireless communication antennae have been placed on 23 towers in Eugene - 11 of the antennae are collocated on shared towers - since the 1997 ordinance went into effect. Most believe there is currently a lull in tower building due to a downturn in the telecommunications industry.

However, Verizon spokeswoman Jenny Weaver says her company is likely to proceed with construction of its Garden Avenue tower sometime early next year.

The project, intended to better serve the University of Oregon area, was delayed first when Knight and other neighbors appealed the city's August 2001 approval to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, and then when the plans were being considered by the state's Historic Preservation Office.

Both state agencies upheld the city's approval of the plan.

"In this case, there were a bunch of side issues that seem like they should have mattered," says Knight, pointing out that the tower site is just 50 feet from the Willamette River greenway and is within view of a major entrance to the city at Judkins Point.

Martha Johnson of Eugene, who along with Veneta resident Mona Linstromberg has been among the area's most active advocates for tighter control over cell tower placements, has her own ongoing fight over a plan to build a tower on the property of Auto Rama, a used car dealership at 1003 River Road.

Johnson and other neighbors are worried about potential ill effects from prolonged exposure to wireless communication signals, but she points out that cities and other jurisdictions are prevented by the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 from restricting cell tower siting on the basis of health concerns.

She says studies elsewhere in the country have shown that cell towers - especially in or near residential areas - devalue property within a 270-foot radius by an average of 4 percent to 15 percent.

And that, she says, provides "one of the strongest" legal and ethical arguments for increasing restrictions on tower locations. In her own neighborhood, 30 homes are situated within 270 feet of the proposed tower and could lose as much as $700,000 in combined value, Johnson says.

"So yeah, it's pretty significant for homeowners," she says. "It's proven to have an effect on the value of real estate, and not just homeowners but businesses, too."

Johnson says she was encouraged by the council's decision this month to order an eventual review of the 5-year-old city ordinance. The council's first step toward a review was prompted in part by a 50-page memo from Johnson and Linstromberg on cell tower issues.

"I'm thrilled," she says. "The majority of councilors seemed to have read our memo. They seemed very willing to go ahead with revisions.

`And they seemed supportive of the majority of the revisions we've recommended."
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Title Annotation:Revision due: Staff approval of a Verizon tower has come under fire.; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 26, 2002
Previous Article:Police seek a bridge to pacifists.
Next Article:Letters in the Editor's Mailbag.

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