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The Rock Creek Project

Rock Creek National Park might represent the migraine of all site headaches. Though as site disputes increase, it might have been a headache worth having, instructionally speaking.

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Although wireless-service providers would like their coverage to reach every nook and cranny of their service areas, the hard truth is there are areas where wireless is not welcome. The opposition has plenty of reasons for its agitation with towers that continue to dot the nation. Some fear to were missions. Others fear for the safety of migratory birds or a decline in property values. Some simply don't want their vistas marred by giant steel structures. Here's the rub: There are hundreds of thousands of subscribers who expect high-quality wireless service.

Although several providers already advertise nationwide coverage, there remains a substantial area where service is either spotty or non-existent. As the number of subscribers continues its climb, the demand for ubiquitous coverage also increases. Odds dictate that community resistance to wireless sites will follow the same trend. Already tower conflicts are regular fodder in the press. From the nation's capital to rural Oregon, public backlash is becoming more visible and widespread.

The best way to prepare for future tower issues is to learn from those that came before; history does tend to repeat it self.

Covering D.C.'s Urban Jungle
Sprawling across 1,754 acres, Rock Creek Park is a burst of wilderness in the heart of Washington, D.C.; offering a stark contrast to the urbanized capital city. It's the oldest and largest natural urban park in the National Park Service (NPS). Rock Creek draws all manner of out-door activities, including runners, cyclists, hikers, bird watchers and people who simply want to escape the city. Rock Creek, renowned for its natural beauty and pristine condition, drew more than 14 million visitors in 1999, according to the NPS. Its roads also see intense traffic during commuter hours.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires federal land to have adequate wireless coverage. In what would prove to be an exhaustive process, Bell Atlantic Mobile (now Verizon Wireless) originally approached the NPS about placing towers in Rock Creek in 1994, but was turned away.

"The NPS told us they wanted a moratorium, like 90 to 100 days because they needed to issue guidelines," said Nancy Stark, Verizon Wireless spokesperson.

Bell Atlantic Mobile (BAM) filed its first application for a site in Rock Creek in April 1997. That began a lengthy period in which the NPS requested information from the service provider on numerous occasions.

In March 1998, Congress spoke up to expedite a resolution to BAM's application. This drew the ire of the capitol's residents and local government. Eddie Gleason, PCIA director of government relations, believes that Rock Creek "had a lot more to do with D.C. state hood as opposed to the actual erecting of the towers."

"Local government officials took offense to the federal government basically saying, `We're going to put this amendment in appropriation, and you have to process this application because it's been sitting dormant,'" Gleason said.

The NPS emphasized that congressional input was limited to a request for a timely resolution. Public opinion didn't seem to trust that it was that simple. Regardless of whether or not Congress' intervention influenced the NPS' decision, it did nudge the process along. A month later, BAM received the green light to file a complete application for two sites.

Inadequate wireless service in the park was already a hot topic among Washington, D.C. residents. The NPS' environmental assessment (EA) described a "nearly 50% chance that a cellular customer will experience a failure prior to completion of the call" and related that "there are substantial portions of the park where virtually no calls will go through." Rock Creek's dense forest and topography contributed to spotty coverage and blackholes. BAM proposed a site at the maintenance yard and the tennis stadium, believing that the two in unison would blanket the entire park. (See Figure 1 on page 56.)

In March 1999, the NPS released its EA and finding of no significant impact (FONSI) for public review. The FONSI called for several slight modifications to BAM's tower specifications. The most notable was that the monopole at the maintenance yard would be reduced from a height of 150 feet to 130 feet to minimize visual impact. Given those revisions, the NPS concluded that the towers were necessary for public safety and would pose no environmental impact to the park. The NPS never considered alternative technologies, such as satellites or coaxial cable, because, according to the EA, they were "neither reasonable nor practical and feasible."

Location of the sites was a critical factor in the decision.

"Because both sites have been intensely developed and can no longer be characterized as remaining in a natural condition, the proposed facilities would induce negligible impacts to wildlife, vegetation or cultural resources," the EA states.

During the public-review period, numerous organizations voiced their support or disfavor of the tower proposal. BAM met with representatives from advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) on several occasions. Groups that backed BAM included the Road Runners Club of America, the District of Columbia Hospital Association, the Washington, D.C. Chamber of Commerce, one ANC and the Latino Civil Rights Center. On the other side stood the Washington, D.C. Sierra Club, two ANCs, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, the Maryland chapter of the National Audubon Society, one city council member and the American Ornithological Society, just to name a few.

Public debate on the towers climaxed at a late March public hearing. An estimated 125 people heard three hours of speeches from citizens, interest groups and the involved parties. Rather than declare its commitment to compromise, BAM used its presentation to argue against the alterations of its application.

"These seemingly minor differences will critically affect public safety of park visitors who rely on cellular communications in emergency situations," said Robert Posilken, BAM manager for real estate and zoning.

Jim Dougherty, Committee of One Hundred of the Federal City representative, brought the auditorium to applause, saying "Frankly, my concern would be more along the lines of drivers who are using cell phones when I'm running along the road."

In refuting the park's need for towers, he also promoted a rival wireless player: "I get great cellphone coverage in the park. It so happens that I use Sprint, and maybe Sprint has the answer."

Additional comments against the towers from citizens and groups alike stressed four issues: the inadequacy of the EA, the degradation of the park's pristine conditions, the potential harmful effects to migratory birds and the intervention of Congress. Pro-tower speakers focused on the benefits of individual and public safety.

From the beginning of the process, emergency service was the raison d'etre to erect the towers. "These proposed facilities are intended to increase public safety rather than visitor convenience," the EA reads. Rock Creek's history and beauty doesn't keep crime away. Prior to working in telecommunications, PCIA's Gleason was a law-enforcement officer in Washington, D.C.

"I had to respond to a lot of incidents in that area," Gleason stressed. "I know for a fact that crime does happen in that particular park."

Sargent Rob MacLean, U.S. Park Police spokesperson, concurred.

"There was a subject that was being assaulted by another subject with a metal pipe," he said. "The subject attempted to use a cellphone and was unable (to)."

The Park Police endorsed BAM's application for themselves as much as for the citizens they serve; the towers were needed for communications among public safety groups.

"If we ever had an incident that required our command post to be in Rock Creek Park and required us to coordinate with other agencies, that couldn't have been done without the cellphone towers," MacLean explained.

Finally, BAM's applications were approved in April 1999. The NPS reviewed its findings and all public comments and reached a decision it felt best balanced the needs of public safety with the preservation of Rock Creek's natural conditions. In May 2000, both sites were operational. With the towers completed, Verizon took a much-needed sigh of relief.

"It was a very long process and the park went too long without service," Stark said.

Adrienne Lenskold, Verizon vice president of marketing, said that the provider kept its commitment to working with all parties throughout the 6-year process.

"We worked with and complied with every aspect of the NPS to construct the sites, so that we were assuring both the needs of the community and the park," she said.

Lessons in the Aftermath
There are towers in Rock Creek, though you might never notice them. Location and stealth helped BAM ease public anxiety about the towers, according to Verizon Wireless' Stark.

Although stealth towers may offer a see-no-evil solution for providers, they add limitations.

"Stealth towers, in many cases, don't have the capacity to accommodate as many providers," said Sheldon Moss, Crown Castle director of government affairs.

Moss also related that stealth towers can "cost multiples of a regular tower." Will providers ante up more for a solution that may still draw criticism? Moss noted that stealth towers may only exacerbate opposition from some groups.

"Industry folks might be disappointed that the stealth solution they propose may not be viewed in a positive light by some of the parties who have strong interests in preserving local historical values."

Some groups, such as the National Trust for Historical Preservation, would rather see a normal tower than risk damage to original materials in historically significant structures.

Verizon Wireless hasn't received any negative feedback from the Rock Creek events, according to Lenskold. Stark concurred and pointed to the increased usage in the park.

"Obviously our customers are happy," she said. "We know that they're getting good service in that area, and that's what this is all about."

Although the challenge was unusual, according to Stark, Verizon doesn't think its efforts were different from the norm.

"It's always our intent to do what we can to meet the requirements of the customers and constituents in a way that is socially responsible," Lenskold related.

Education is number one among provider efforts to manage site conflicts, according to PCIA's Gleason. Crown Castle believes in "doing the job correctly" by working closely with the local community and addressing all of its particular concerns with information, Moss said.

"We certainly go out of our way to make sure that we don't find ourselves in a situation where there is local controversy," he said. "It can certainly happen, but frankly it doesn't happen very much."

Verizon Wireless has a pecking order of preferences for site locations. The provider's first choice is to add the tower to an existing structure in a commercial area. Ultimately, though, Verizon strives to keep the interest of the customer, or potential customer, foremost in its efforts.

"It's really critical that we work with the community in providing service and building the infrastructure that provides the service," Stark said. "The last thing we want to do is alienate the community because that's our potential customer."

If wireless has an Achilles' heel, it may be that someday the need for towers will surpass either what the public will tolerate or the land can harbor. Although wireless sites may never become as ordinary as telephone poles, all is not lost for providers who want to expand their coverage areas and quality. Grass roots efforts to answer public concerns and a willingness to compromise often can help providers reach mutually beneficial outcomes.

The wireless industry should heed the Rock Creek experience and learn from it to better handle other site challenges. If the "not in my backyard" sentiment grows, Rock Creek may become the rule, not the exception.

Don't Tread on Me

For the first time, a wireless-tower conflict has turned violent. George and Kathy Culp, along with their 19-year-old son, are the unlucky victims. George Culp is a raspberry farmer who lives near Sandy, OR, just south of Portland.

At about 3 a.m. on May 30, five shots from a .357-caliber Magnum handgun ripped through the Culp's home and vehicle. Although no one was injured, one bullet came perilously close when it struck the foot of the son's bed. A note left on the car promised to use whatever means necessary to stop the tower from going up.

Culp had signed a 30-year agreement with American Tower to erect a 250-foot tower on his farm. The tower will service AT&T Wireless. Both American Tower and AT&T declined comment. The Culps viewed the tower agreement as a means of achieving long-term financial security. Typical long-term contracts mean anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a month for the land owner.

Although no further violence has occurred, the Clackamas County Police have yet to identify any suspects.

Ever since Culp agreed to put the tower on his land, his family has been the subject of intense criticism from neighbors and the local community. Concerns have been raised about property values, health risks and the degradation of the pastoral view. An editorial in the Sandy newspaper accused the Culps of orchestrating the attack themselves. However, according to Angela Blanchard, Clackamas County public information officer, the detective in the case is confident that is not what happened.

Criticism has fueled the family's desire to put the tower up. George Culp told a local TV station that the assailant was a coward for attacking his family at night.

Despite its opposition, the community is appalled by the attack.

"Even though they're unhappy about having the cellphone tower there, most of them are upstanding citizens and are bewildered that it happened in their backyard," explained Blanchard.

Battling for the Tower Stamp

Other tower-related conflicts:

• early August, the Fairfax County (VA) Board of Supervisors threatened litigation against the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) if the VDOT continued to allow wireless-tower sites without first obtaining county consent. The board wants wireless towers along highways to be subject to a public approval process; VDOT normally approves highway tower sites without intervention or feedback from any other group. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fairfax and other local governments last year, saying that towers must be licensed by local governments.

• Shakespeare Festival employees feel a tower near their stage is not to be. The players are concerned that the tower will distract from their stage and ruin the view of the Boise Foothills. VoiceStream Wireless has city and county approval for the tower but is waiting to build in favor of meeting with the public to reach a compromise.

• New Hampshire, recent legislation established "a master plan for the orderly deployment of personal wireless-service facilities in communities throughout the state." Residents of any city or town near a potential tower would have to be contacted and allowed to express their opinions. The bill also calls for the Office of State Planning to write tower ordinances for local communities to use as guidelines for their own site requirements.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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