Opponents say fight likely to continue in courts
There was a brief moment of elation Tuesday for critics of a controversial cell phone tower on the city’s east side as the Washington Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 that the city erred in issuing a building permit for the cell phone tower because it didn’t meet the code requirements for a disguised tower.
That elation was cut short by an announcement from Washington City Attorney Mark Piontek, who said it takes four votes to overturn the city’s decision to issue the building permit for the cell tower at 602 Alberta Lane.
“I didn’t realize that it took four votes,” said Amy Howell, who was among a group of residents seeking to convince the Board of Adjustment that the 155-foot-tall tower, which is built to resemble a tree, failed to meet the specific requirements for a disguised cell phone tower. Had the group prevailed, the Board of Adjustment could have ordered the company to submit a new tower design.
Howell said she and other neighbors are considering appealing the board’s decision to the Franklin County Circuit Court.
“This isn’t over,” Howell said after the meeting. At the core of the neighbors’ argument is that the tower does not blend into the “natural world” as dictated by the city’s codes, which were adopted in 2017.
“It sticks out like a sore thumb,” said Ron Linnenbrink, who was one of several people to speak against the tower’s design. No one spoke in favor of the design, though two members representing Tower Co., the cell phone tower’s construction company, were present for the meeting.
The representatives said they “theoretically” could add more branches to the “tree” but would not be able to because of concerns over weight capacity.
Linnenbrink’s wife, Katie, echoed her husband’s sentiments.
“I realize that cell phone towers are necessary for communication, but this is unsightly,” Katie Linnenbrink said. “We would like something better. We deserve something better than this.”
Under city code, the construction company could have built a cell phone tower that resembled a clock tower, an observation tower, a water tower, an artificial tree or a limited number of other appearances. There is one other disguised cell tower in Washington, located at Cecilia Drive, which is disguised as a flagpole.
“It is a disgrace. It looks like a tall toilet bowl brush and it is embarrassing,” Lisa Holdmeier said. She and other neighbors urged the Board of Adjustment to petition the Washington City Council to revise its city codes to be more restrictive on cell phone tower appearances.
“We realize that it may be too late to do anything about this tower, but we don’t want this to happen again to someone else. We don’t want this to become the landscape of Washington,” said Amy Howell.
Their message seemingly fell on receptive ears, as the board voted 5-0 to refer the codes back to the City Council for revision.
“This code is as vague as vague can be,” said Jason Pellin, who along with Susan Harms voted that the cell phone tower met the current code requirements. Board of Adjustment members Kevin Kriete, Gwen Mauntel and Lloyd Miesner voted in favor of overturning the building permit.
“I am not denying that it is disguised,” Mauntel said. “It is just not a very good disguise.”
She referenced city code 400.320, which said the tower’s presence should be “camouflaged or concealed as an architectural or natural feature.”
“While it can be interpreted differently, I think it is obvious that it is not a natural feature. It is not concealed,” Mauntel said. “Do we have any better options for a disguise other than this? Clearly it is wearing a disguise, but it is a disguise that makes it stand out instead of hiding.”
According to city leaders, including City Administrator Darren Lamb, the city’s ordinances regarding cell phone towers use similar language found in other cities’ codes. He said any revisions to the city codes could be done, but could take anywhere between three to six months to complete as proposed changes would require public hearings and multiple readings at meetings of the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council.
“We will talk internally about what we can do to address any ambiguities in the city code,” Lamb said. He said any changes to the city’s codes will still have to comply with state laws.