AT&T, Verizon urge caution in Mat-Su tower setbacks

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- AT&T and Verizon are asking a Mat-Su Borough committee to weigh potentially negative effects on their industry before deciding on setbacks to protect people who live near communication towers.

The borough's Tall Towers Advisory Committee formed last year to write new regulations for towers currently defined as 100 feet or taller. The Mat-Su Assembly removed all regulations for tall towers two years ago, then reinstated an old ordinance as a placeholder following a public outcry as residents complained of towers erected in dense neighborhoods with no warning.

Now the committee has drafted an ordinance that would require only that nearby residents get notified before new towers are built, borough officials say. The committee, however, still needs to approve language addressing setbacks for new towers.

The committee will decide setbacks at a Jan. 9 meeting, according to borough development services manager Alex Strawn.

At a committee meeting Wednesday night, discussion centered on the current setback proposal, Strawn said.

It says towers would have to be separated from neighboring property by the distance of the tower's fall radius, he said. The proposal includes two exceptions: if the tower builder owns the adjacent parcel; or if they secure an easement from the neighboring property owner that bans the construction of any dwelling within the tower's fall line.

The type of setback proposed by the committee "can substantially reduce the potential locations for a tower, and it is unlikely that a neighbor will agree to an easement as described in the draft code's exceptions," AT&T attorney Meridee Pabst wrote in a letter emailed to the committee Wednesday from the Issaquah, Wash., offices of Busch Law Firm PLLC.

For telecommunications towers, AT&T is suggesting a third exception that would apply a smaller setback for towers built with technology designed to reduce impact in the "unlikely event" of a structural failure, Pabst's letter says.

A 200-foot AT&T Alascom tower fell over near Willow after the Oct. 25 windstorm that reportedly sent gusts up to 110 mph howling across Willow-Fishhook Road. The tower fell in a remote area and didn't hit any homes. It was reportedly one of the first towers to fall in Alaska.

An attorney representing Verizon Wireless also spoke during the meeting Wednesday night.

Joe Reece, with Davis Wright Tremaine in Anchorage, shared different scenarios of a tower with a 100-foot fall radius on different sized parcels of land, Strawn said. On a quarter acre, the current proposal would require an easement from as many as eight property owners, Reece told the group.

He asked the committee to consider the effect the proposed setback would have on property owners' rights and the ability of cell providers to site towers. The four-member borough committee was expected to decide setbacks on Wednesday night, but the committee tabled a decision until next month due to teleconferencing problems.

The borough Planning Commission will review any ordinance approved by the committee.