WASILLA -- A long-awaited draft ordinance from a Mat-Su Borough committee crafting new rules for "tall" towers requires little of tower developers beyond notifying people living nearby two months before construction starts.
The issue of regulating tall structures -- anything over 100 feet, with some exceptions such as power lines or ham radio towers -- has a sense of urgency in the Valley as communications towers rise throughout the Mat-Su to serve the cellphones of the borough's growing population.
The borough's Tall Tower Advisory Committee formed in 2012 after the Mat-Su Assembly stripped all tower regulations the year before. With neighborhood residents up in arms over towers popping up without warning, officials reinstated an old ordinance as a placeholder until new rules could be drafted.
This week marks the end of the advisory committee's work.
On Thursday night, the four-man committee unanimously approved a draft ordinance that requires only that a tower developer notify the borough planning department, the nearby community council and people who live within 600 feet of a proposed tower 60 days before construction starts and then meet with neighbors 30 days before.
The borough's former top planning official says the draft ordinance isn't much better than no rules at all.
"This process is flawed," Murph O'Brien wrote in an email Thursday to planner Alex Strawn. "The recommendations serve no one but the industry."
O'Brien, the borough's former planning director, lives near one of the more infamous towers that sprang up in a dense subdivision near Mat-Su College during the deregulation period.
"Public notice isn't necessarily a public process," he said Friday. "When you're sixty days out from construction, the lease has been let, the steel has been ordered, the design has been completed, so it's just basically letting people know that they're coming to the neighborhood."
The ordinance will be reviewed by the borough planning commission and Assembly and could be changed at either level.
Borough planner Alex Strawn said it could be April or May before it returns to the Assembly for final approval.
Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss spearheaded the committee and throughout the process made it clear he sought an ordinance that required exactly what emerged Thursday night from the committee -- something that only requires public notice.
The telecommunications industry also sought a less-stringent proposal.
By Thursday night's meeting, the committee had already signed off on all sections of the draft ordinance except one: setbacks around the towers to protect neighboring homes and property in case they fell. High winds in late October near Willow toppled a 200-foot AT&T tower, a rare Alaskan tower-toppling incident that occurred just as the borough committee discussed setbacks.
Committee member Rick Brenden spent months gathering hundreds of photographs of fallen or fiery towers. Brenden came up with a setback proposal that would separate a tower from neighboring property by its fall radius unless the tower builder owned the next parcel or got the landowner to agree not to build.
Other members of the committee, however, continued to oppose setbacks, saying they put too much burden on communications providers given the relatively low risk of a tower falling.
The committee on Thursday rejected Brenden's proposal in a 3-1 vote.
"I believe we're doing the wrong thing for the public, requiring them to pay more for their cellular service than need be," said committee member Aaron Downing before voting "no."
Committee member Ken Slauson repeated his favorite "thought problem" as relates to tower setbacks: if towers are dangerous, then falling trees are far more dangerous and should also be regulated. That sparked a brief spat.
"You're exaggerating. Stay on the subject of towers," Brenden told him.
"Rick, you're out of order. Stop it!" Slauson responded.
The ordinance that emerged from the committee Thursday night represents a "lost opportunity," O'Brien said Friday.
Verizon had offered to put up some kind of barrier fence as a concession to neighbors, but that wasn't incorporated into the ordinance, he said. AT&T also suggested an exception to setback requirements if a tower builder used "breakaway technology" that lessened the impact of any failure, according to a letter the communications giant filed last month.
"I'm hoping that the planning commission will take a little bit broader view and recognize that especially in residential areas there should be a higher bar of performance," he said. "If the tower has to go there, OK, then there should be some mitigation measures."
Planning commission chair John Klapperich spoke at Thursday night's meeting, though said he was expressing his opinion as a borough taxpayer, not a commission representative.
Klapperich said he was "challenged" by the lack of public participation during the committee's sparsely attended meetings.
"This affects every taxpayer ... every property owner in the borough," he said. "I truly wish there was more greater involvement. You're having to make decisions on limited information."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER