What it took to win one small victory

ESSAY – May 11, 2010
By Ken Winkes

We won. The tiny town of Conway, Wash., will not have a cell tower looming over its one street.  Thanks to hours of work and thousands of dollars, we won. But it shouldn’t have been that hard.

The 150-foot tower was to have been located behind the post office, where it would have dwarfed even the feed-mill elevator that rises to the east of the Burlington Northern railroad track.

Conway, close to the mouth of the Skagit River, has one main street two blocks long, with a post office at one end and a volunteer fire hall at the other.  In between there’s a tavern, a few small shops and one large antique store.  The rest of Main Street is lined with houses built between 1910 and 1920.

Many residents protested that a cell tower — even one disguised as the world’s tallest plastic Christmas tree — would never blend into our community. We shared research about cell towers’ effects on wildlife, with some suggesting that the tower’s signals would confuse migrating birds. The “tree” would be within one mile of a migratory bird refuge. This information seemed relevant to us; to the planners, it was not.

As for the tower’s effect on public health, we learned that the wireless phone industry had long since lobbied successfully for a federal law stipulating that any possible impact of cell towers on human health could not serve as a legal basis for objecting to them.

We submitted studies that demonstrated the obvious effect of cell towers on property values in residential areas. Verizon countered with a study of its own, and the county planner apparently found it — rather than the information we contributed — persuasive.

We presented a petition that 85 percent of the community signed. We understood the NIMBY impulse fit us to a T, but we also thought community sentiment mattered. We were wrong about that, too.

Fortunately, the avid researchers in our family, my wife and our son, came upon county code language about setback requirements. That gave us some hope.  The rear of the commercial building adjacent to the tower site has been used as a residence for more than 25 years.  That meant the tower’s setback had to be equal to its height, not the 15 feet that commercial zoning requires.  We told the county planner, who tried to make the problem disappear. We weren’t convinced by her verbal jujitsu, so we hired a lawyer and appealed.

A year later, the appeal was heard, and the hearing examiner agreed that a residence was – not surprisingly – a place where someone lives.  We prevailed!

I ought to feel better about it all, I suppose. Verizon has apparently chosen not to appeal the examiner’s decision.  But winning in a case like this leaves behind a load of regret.

I’m sorry to have deprived a neighbor of the income he would have received from Verizon, and I’m sorry he now seems displeased to see me.  I’m sad I saw another man I’ve known for years testify that the tower was needed for public safety reasons after telling me privately he just wanted better wireless service for his wife’s home computer.  I cannot help it; I now look at him differently.

The personal things are hard, but even harder are the public issues this tussle highlighted.  Had we not lived within 500 feet of the site, we probably would never have known of the proposal.  Who regularly reads the legal announcements in the back of the newspaper? Fortunately, because part of our back yard is within that magic circle, the announcement was mailed to us, and we bothered to read it.

There’s also the investment of time and money that opposition requires. Had my family not created a petition, knocked on doors, gathered signatures, talked to neighbors, taken photographs, researched the history of cell-tower siting, pored over the county code, printed, copied and delivered hundreds of pages to the county planner, there would now be a cell tower where the rules clearly say one shouldn’t be. That seems too many “ifs” between right and wrong.

People should not have to spend one-third of their year’s Social Security checks to question a county decision — which is why there’s a larger issue at stake here than the placement of one cell tower in one small community that didn’t want it.

Money talks, while its absence gives the average citizen no voice. Who is likely to be the victor in local land-use wars? I’m sorry to say that it rarely is the people.

Ken Winkes

Ken Winkes is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired teacher who lives in Conway, Washington.

First published in High County News, May 11, 2010
Reprinted with the permission of Writer’s on the Range Op-Ed Syndication Service of High Country News

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