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Better coverage, or health hazard? County Council sets the stage for new cell-phone rules

The days of dead zones and spotty cell-phone coverage could be nearing the end.

But it will take a massive overhaul in the way cell-phone towers, or wireless antennas, are regulated, reviewed and permitted in order to make that happen, according to members of a recently-created cell-phone task force.

A backlash is already brewing over its push to streamline local regulations.

Lopez Island's Jeffrey Stonehill on Sept. 30 warned the San Juan County Council that too many questions remain unanswered about the potential dangers of wireless communication despite reassurances by those in the industry. He opposes any scale-back in protections that existing rules provide and, he said, at least 250 Lopez islanders feel the same.

"Let's err on the side of prudence on this industry," Stonehill said.

Nevertheless, the council set in motion a process that could lead to wholesale changes in the rules that now govern the siting and operation of wireless antennas and cell-phone towers.

In a 5-1 vote, the council backed a recommendation by the task force in which the siting and operation of wireless facilities would be governed by development rules rather than as an "overlay district" embedded in the Comprehensive Plan.

County Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, voted against it.

The possible switch will be weighed as part of this year's so-called "docket," an annual review of pending changes to the Comp Plan.

In addition, the task force, in a divided decision by the council, was given a green light to craft a new set of regulations, which must go through the Planning Commission, a series of public hearings and ultimately the council prior to adoption. Four council members voted in favor, while Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, and Myhr, abstained.

Myhr acknowledged the need for improved cell-phone service, and for public safety and medical emergency personnel in particular. But he questioned the amount of time the public will have to react and prepare for whatever changes the task force may have in store.

"If the code is so onerous, why did a tower just go up?", Myhr asked, citing the recent installation of a tower at the Lopez Airport. "I'm getting a very uneasy feeling about this."

According to Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, the regulations put in place over a decade ago have proven "onerous" and discourage cell-phone companies from installing new antennas or towers. Peterson, chairman of the 14-person task force, said the rules could adapt more easily to technological advancements if they were not tied directly to the Comp Plan.

"... we created what most perceive to be a prohibitive ordinance that essentially prevents cell tower construction over most of the county," Peterson wrote in a recent memo to fellow council members.

Peterson said that an effective, well-crafted and relatively speedy solution is just around the corner if the task force steals a few pages out of the Island County playbook. The neighboring county, he said, regulates wireless antennas through its development regulations and by land-use district, not its Comp Plan.

Furthermore, he said, local rules are outdated given the advancements in wireless communication over the past decade.

"The reality is things have changed a great deal over the last 10 years," he said. "I think it would be a wonderful Christmas present for this community."

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