The Rio Rancho Governing Body has narrowly upheld a decision not to allow AT&T to build a cell tower in Sabana Park in the Corrales Heights area, despite the possibility of a lawsuit.
At their meeting Wednesday night at City Hall, councilors Tim Crum, Lonnie Clayton and Tamara Gutierrez vote to uphold the city Planning and Zoning Board’s denial of the permit for the tower, while councilors Chuck Wilkins, Mark Scott and Patricia Thomas voted to overturn it. Mayor Tom Swisstack broke the tie to uphold the denial.
The tower was meant to close a gap in AT&T coverage, and the company would pay $25,000 to lease the land.
Planning and Zoning Board members denied the application for a permit on a 3-2 vote June 25. AT&T then appealed the decision to the governing body.
Corrales Heights is in Crum’s district.
Scott said he’d received calls from people supporting the tower, but almost two dozen Corrales Heights residents spoke against it. Their reasons included safety, maintaining the views from their homes, property values and environmental protection.
Resident Lisa Palmer said the tower could impact the drainage system centered around the park.
“I have horrible (cellular) coverage,” she said. “But I will forgo coverage for the safety of my community and to keep the drainage system the way it was designed.”
The building permit process involves looking at structural integrity, soil and drainage, and city experts would be sure plans met standards and were safe, said Liz Walker of AT&T.
Telecommunication consultant Mel Patterson of the Center for Municipal Solutions said the site meets requirements for radio frequency emissions. It’s higher than 10 meters and has a lower output than regulations demand, he said.
AT&T recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Village of Corrales, claiming the village council violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 by refusing to allow the company to build a 65-foot tower on commercial property in the village, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Patterson said litigation over a community denying a telecommunications facility permit happens frequently, and if the permit application meets requirements, the communication company wins the suit. He expected AT&T to sue Rio Rancho if the permit were denied, since that’s what the company did in Corrales.
Federal law limits how much local government can regulate or refuse telecommunications facilities, including a prohibition on denying a permit without substantial evidence that the facility would cause problems, Patterson said.
Wilkins said he had to consider the interests of people in his district as well as those in Corrales Heights, Crum’s district. If AT&T filed a lawsuit against the city, taxpayers would foot the bill.
“I’m making decisions based on, not $25,000, but ‘does it make sense to put us out for a lawsuit, to turn around and pay for a lawsuit and then have them build it anyway?’” Wilkins asked rhetorically.
Wilkins said he used to have a good view of Albuquerque’s city lights from his backyard, but five or six years ago, power lines were built across the area to prevent frequent blackouts. Such things need to happen for the good of the city, he said later.
“Boy, have we heard about lawsuits,” Clayton said at the meeting.
Since he expected the city to be sued regardless of the decision he made, Clayton said he would make the judgment he thought was right for the city.
Public safety issue
Walker said 70 percent of 911 calls come from cell phones.
“So it’s really a public safety issue,” she continued.
Police Chief Bob Boone later in the meeting said the percentage was probably correct, but a lot of those cellular 911 calls come from many people calling in the same serious car wrecks. Still, he said he didn’t know the importance of better coverage, but cellular technology that allows people to report crimes is critical with low police staffing limiting patrols.
“We rely on the eyes and ears of our community,” Boone said.
Swisstack and others questioned if Sabana Park was really the only place for the tower. Walker said AT&T investigated other possible locations, including those Corrales Heights residents suggested.
However, either the property owner refused to lease the location or the sites were too close to existing AT&T antennas, which could cause signal interference without increasing coverage, Walker said. She said it would be easier and quicker for AT&T to put an antenna at an existing site, but they couldn’t in this case.
Also, Walker said moving the tower within the park would mean building it on land that dropped off to the east, which would require more height for the same coverage.
Neighbor Sarah Bonneau said the view of the Sandia Mountains is “the one priceless commodity you can’t replace.” The cell phone tower would obliterate the view, she said.
Walker said to reduce the visual impact, AT&T had changed cell tower plans so it would be 65 feet instead of 70, despite a decrease in coverage, and decreased the width by 2 feet on each side.
Multiple Corrales Heights residents said the majority of coverage from a tower in Sabana Park would be for Corrales, not their Rio Rancho neighborhood. However, Walker said while the tower would provide some coverage in Corrales, most would be in Rio Rancho.