DPNR blocks AT&T cell tower

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ST. THOMAS ­- The Department of Planning and Natural Resources has sided with homeowners in Estate Mafolie and Hospital Ground in deciding not to permit a proposed 50-foot cell tower that would serve AT&T on a quarter-acre parcel of land nestled within a residential zone.

On April 18, about 16 residents whose homes surrounded the parcel of land at 400D-2 Estate Hospital Ground attended a hearing about the matter at DPNR. They voiced concerns that the tower would devalue their homes, would pose a safety hazard in the event of a storm and could pose serious health risks by emitting radiation.

Citing regulations that require a cell tower to blend in with natural or architectural features on a residential site, Stuart Smith, the director of planning for DPNR's Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zoning Planning, recommended that the permit be denied.

According to Smith, regulations issued in late 2011 after a three-year moratorium on the building of cell towers in the territory specify that applicants use "stealth technology" when commercially feasible.

Such technology makes a cell tower appear as part of an existing structure or disguises it somehow to look like a part of the landscape. The applicant for the tower, InSite Towers, LLC, a contractor that builds towers to lease their use to major communications companies such as AT&T, made no attempt to use stealth technology in the tower's design, Smith said, so he recommended to DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes that the application be denied. Barnes signed the recommendation Friday, according to Smith.

Brian Safreed, who acquires sites for Caribbean Tower Sites, LLC, the contractor that would build the tower for InSite Towers, LLC., said the demand for towers in the territory is growing with the population's wireless technology use.

According to Safreed, tower construction companies in the Virgin Islands are faced with the dual dilemma of having limited land space available and constructing towers in a hurricane-prone region. The regulations require that a tower be surrounded by an ample radius of undeveloped land so that in the event of storm the tower would not fall onto adjacent properties and flying debris would not pose a risk to the tower's neighbors.

The use of stealth technology not only creates more cost for tower developers but added features contribute to the risk of flying debris, Safreed said.

At the April hearing and in subsequent interviews, Smith concurred with Safreed's analysis that the territory's existing towers are operating at capacity and that they are inadequate to provide full coverage for the islands.

"The territory right now is at 100 percent capacity, so if one cell tower were to be taken offline, calls would be dropped," Smith said. Currently, DPNR has two applications pending for similarly sized towers: one in Sunny Isles on St. Croix and one in Estate Bethany on St. John. The carriers who would be served by the proposed towers are Choice Communications and AT&T, but the department expects applications to come from tower companies serving Sprint soon, Smith said.

The rules and regulations are designed to balance the needs of residents with the demand for technological capacity, according to Smith. Currently, the territory does not have any stealth towers, but the last two towers erected fall within the regulations because they are "alternative" sites, that is, they piggy-back off of existing structures. Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort is in the process of installing a tower on its building, and Choice Communications installed a similar tower on a home on St. Croix several months ago, according to Smith.

Maurice Kurg, who helped develop the network for Cellular One in the territory in the mid-1990s, said he witnessed the growth of the cellular industry and saw how all of the prime mountaintop sites - ones that could accommodate larger towers with a greater radius - were scooped up during that decade.

After having retired from his position as the region's general manager with Cellular One, Kurg gave support to Estate Fortuna residents who fought the construction of a tower on the property of the Bordeaux fire and ambulance center in 2009. That outcry became part of the impetus for the moratorium, he said.

Kurg, who oversaw the construction of about 15 of the territory's towers, said it is critical that tower developers turn to stealth technology because they now will be forced to use sites embedded in populous, residential zones. He said he had recently taken a trip to French Polynesia, where the towers he saw were so well-disguised as palm trees that it was impossible to detect them from a distance.

Of the recently denied tower application, Kurg said, "I would have known there would be opposition, so I would have stayed away from a site like that, but now people have to look harder and they have to go into these neighborhoods to find space."

Kurg said the middle men who buy land and construct towers for cellular companies are attracted by the economic opportunities of being able to perpetually lease towers to branded companies, but they also play a "shielding role" in terms of bad publicity and liability for the companies.

Safreed did not say whether he will reapply with a modified design for a tower at the Hospital Ground site.

Residents who were relieved about the denial of the permit said an aesthetically pleasing design would do nothing to allay their opposition to the tower.

"I am so happy, and I hope that even stricter legislation can be placed on the erection of towers throughout the islands because I know it is going to affect many more areas," said Judy Watson, who recently purchased a home adjacent to the proposed site.

Gobind Chugani, whose home is about 300 yards away from the Hospital Ground site, said stealth technology would do nothing to mitigate the risk of flying debris and to reduce potentially adverse health effects from radiation.

"In a storm, antennas and dishes could just literally become flying objects. There is so much risk with the homes being close by. That's what I worry about, along with the health effects of a cell tower being close by where my children play," he said.

- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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