San Juan Council vote could lead to expanded cell phone coverage

The San Juan County Council took another step down a path that some believe will lead to better cell-phone coverage throughout the islands.

In a 6-0 decision, the County Council on April 13 gave preliminary approval to removing the local rules on personal wireless communications facilities from the county Comprehensive Plan, where they function much like a sub-area plan, and inserting them instead into the Unified Development Code.

It's a course the council set its sights on nearly 18 months ago. The council, prompted at that time by concerns raised by the association of local fire chiefs and emergency responders, created a task force and then asked it to identify what steps would be needed for a large-scale improvement in cell-phone coverage.

Creating a permitting process and design standards that reflect advancements in wireless technology is seen by the task force as crucial to allowing wireless providers to build a more effective network. Doing either, according to the task force, is cumbersome with regulations on wireless communications embedded in the Comp Plan, which can be modified only once a year.

A final decision on the potential switch will be back before the council for a final decision at a April 27 public hearing.

Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, noted that the switch, if approved, won't bring about an immediate change in rules governing wireless communications or in the quality of local cell-phone service. The rules, which include a 500-foot setback from residential properties outside urban growth areas or activity centers, will remain in tact until a new set of design standards are developed.

"I think it's important for the public to understand that moving the wireless communications regulations from the Comp Plan to the UDC does nothing to improve cell-phone service at the present time," he said.

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