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Mat-Su planning commission rejects proposed tall towers rules

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- A new attempt to regulate wireless communications and other "tall" towers in the Mat-Su Borough has been rejected by the borough planning commission over concerns the proposed rules don't go far enough.

The borough's draft tall towers ordinance would require tower developers do little beyond notify nearby residents two months before construction starts on any tower over 100 feet tall.

The seven-member planning commission, in a 5-0 vote on March 17, recommended against borough Assembly approval for the ordinance; one member was absent and another, a Matanuska Telephone Association employee, recused himself.

Commissioners urged the Assembly to find a better way to regulate the towers, especially in high-density residential areas.

Now it's up to the Assembly to decide whether to take the commission's advice, tweak the rules or approve them as written. The proposed ordinance is on the Assembly agenda for its April 1 meeting, where it will be introduced for a April 15 public hearing.

The proposed ordinance was developed by a small committee appointed last year by Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss after the Assembly scrapped an earlier proposal over what some considered overly strict rules that punished communications companies and hurt business.

The resulting deregulation left the Valley with no tower rules at all for about a year between 2011 and 2012 even as communications towers popped up throughout the Mat-Su to serve the cellphones of the borough's growing population.

But if the new draft ordinance goes into effect, the lack of oversight could leave real-estate developers wondering if towers would someday mar prime view lots, said planning commission chair John Klapperich, a Wasilla consultant and former radio station owner.

"As we become attractive to one industry, we become unattractive to another," Klapperich said in an interview Wednesday. "This could run other good business out of the Valley."

The borough has been trying to find a solution to the tower dilemma since 2008, when officials convened a working group that spent two years writing new rules. Rather than approve the rules, in November 2011 the Assembly repealed existing requirements for tall tower construction and enacted nothing in their place.

Public alarm followed. Towers suddenly popped up in neighborhoods including a dense residential area near Mat-Su College that drew media attention. At least 54 towers went up while no regulations were in place, according to records filed at the borough, though officials say it's likely the number is higher.

The Assembly reinstated an old ordinance as a placeholder about a year later -- it requires a conditional-use permit for structures over 100 feet -- and agreed to form the five-member Tall Tower Advisory Committee to come up with new rules.

It was that committee, down to four members, that unanimously approved the draft towers ordinance in January after holding six meetings that drew little public attention.

The proposed rules would require 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. Critics say the towers, which take about a year to plan, are already a done deal 60 days before construction.

The proposal comes with no height restrictions.

As part of its deliberations in January, the four-member committee defeated a move to require setbacks around towers to protect neighbors from the rare but documented possibility of a fall.

Planning commission members during the March 17 vote talked about possible ways to fix the ordinance including setbacks, "co-locating" more than one company's equipment on a single, taller tower, or calling for regulation only on towers in residential areas.

But, Klapperich said Wednesday, they decided to scrap any changes.

"We said, 'You know what? There's been so many people for so many years on this, out of respect to the public, a planning commission cannot rewrite this in an evening,'" he said.

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


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com