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Willow cell tower collapses as Mat-Su drafts new rules

Zaz Hollander

A huge wind gust blew over a nearly 200-foot-tall telecommunications tower near Willow in late October.

The rare tower toppling -- one of the first ever reported in the Valley -- happened as the Mat-Su Borough gets ready to revisit the contentious issue of regulating the construction of tall towers, including those that provide cell phone service to a growing population.

The borough removed all regulations for tall towers two years ago and, amid public criticism, last year reinstated an old ordinance as a placeholder. Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss in October 2012 created the five-member Tall Towers Advisory Committee to help write permanent new regulations.

The committee is finished with the job, except for one hotly debated question expected to be decided at a late November meeting:

Should tall towers come with setbacks to protect nearby residents?

Absolutely, says committee member Rick Brenden. Especially given what happened in Willow.

"It reinforces my point. Towers do fall long and flat and they shouldn't be placed near homes," Brenden said Thursday, the day after he visited the tower site with Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Sykes. "My point is, if you put up a tower on your property, keep it on your property. If you want it over your house, that's your business."

Brenden, a ham radio operator who represents industry on the committee, supports setbacks equal to the height of a tower, coupled with binding agreements offered to adjoining property owners if the tower could fall on their land.

He became the committee's setback expert, showing up at meetings with about 300 photos of fallen or fiery towers and wind turbines in other places -- anywhere but Alaska.

But it was setback skeptic and at-large committee member Ken Slauson who heard about the Willow tower first and called Brenden.

"'Hey Rick, we finally did have a tower fall down!'" Slauson said he told Brenden.

Slauson, a retired emergency responder and fellow ham radio operator, said he hasn't seen the specific language Brenden plans to introduce when the committee next meets.

Generally, he said, he's wary of writing code that comes with unintended side effects and also of turning the tall tower ordinance process into de facto zoning.

It's rare for towers to collapse rather than crumple and go straight down, Slauson said. But a full tower-height setback could sharply limit tower sites for companies and willing property owners. A binding agreement could be problematic over the years, he said.

Then there's the whole tree argument.

"If the idea here is safety, that were trying to make sure something heavy doesn't fall on your neighbor's house, then what's the greatest danger?" he asked. "Trees are a lot harder and fall down a lot more. If towers need a separate setback then I guess we better be clearcutting all the trees."

The committee's proposal will before to the Assembly, and is also expected to be reviewed by the borough Planning Commission.

The Willow collapse is only the second known tower to fall in the Mat-Su, officials say.

A pair of 199-foot meteorological towers also fell, probably blown over, on Bald Mountain Ridge behind Wasilla, according to Alex Strawn, the borough development services manager who's working with the tall towers committee.

The AT&T Alascom tower collapsed after the Oct. 25 windstorm that reportedly sent gusts as high as 110 mph hurtling through the area off Willow-Fishhook Road. About 60 people lost wireless service. AT&T crews are working to install a temporary tower, a company representative said this week.

The 188-foot tower, built in 1974, didn't appear to fail structurally, according to information provided by the borough. Instead, high winds combined with rain-soaked ground likely caused the collapse, Strawn said. Guy wires on the tower were re-tensioned this year, he said.

The debate over setbacks marks the last chapter in a process that started two years ago when the previous Assembly, citing an "open for business" climate, voted to at least temporarily remove all regulation on tall towers as well as all public notification and comment.

Public outrage followed, as people living near new cell phone towers gave Assembly members an earful. Their complaints included safety concerns from falling towers and diminished property values.

Borough officials can't say just how many towers went up when the rules disappeared. Some estimates put that number at 40 to 50.

Assembly members last year enacted a new ordinance based on the May 2010 recommendations of a two-year borough tower working group: any single-user tower taller than 85 feet required a conditional-use permit and accompanying public hearings.

That lasted for a month. Then the Assembly reinstated the borough's original 1999 towers ordinance defining a tall tower as any over 100 feet.

Now that provision may go away too.

The draft language currently proposed by the advisory committee would require a company to notify property owners within 600 feet of a tower, Strawn said. The company could build the tower 30 days after the meeting is held.

It would repeal the existing conditional-use permit requirement and the borough's obligation to weigh public comment.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com