Mat-Su Assembly rejects bid to loosen tall towers law

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- The Mat-Su Assembly this week ditched proposed rules for wireless communications and other "tall" towers that would have loosened existing protections for people living near the towers that are sprouting up around the Valley.

Amid criticism the draft laws didn't protect the public, the borough's four-member Tall Tower Advisory Committee had proposed an ordinance that would have required only that companies building towers taller than 100 feet notified neighbors before construction started.

The Assembly killed the draft tall towers ordinance Tuesday by taking the rare step of not scheduling a public hearing, originally planned for April 15.

Assembly member Matthew Beck noted that even the tower committee chairman last month told planning commissioners the draft ordinance was "a little too light" and needed more work.

"I don't think this would serve either the private sector or the public sector," Beck said.

The borough has been trying to find a new way to regulate towers since 2008, as more residents with more cell phones trigger the need for more communications towers. The Assembly did away with all regulations for a year.

Right now, the borough requires a longer, more comprehensive permit process for anything taller than 100 feet, with some exceptions like power lines or ham radio towers.

Critics -- including the borough's planning commission -- said the latest draft went too far to protect industry without addressing the concerns of people living in the Mat-Su's increasingly dense neighborhoods who worry about towers falling or triggering plummeting property values.

Planning commissioners on March 17 voted unanimously to recommend against Assembly approval.

The Assembly, minus several members, voted 3-1 against introducing the ordinance for a hearing.

Assembly member Jim Colver recused himself before the vote because his surveying company works with the telecommunications industry. Members Darcie Salmon and Ron Arvin, both likely votes in favor of a hearing, were absent. Steve Colligan cast the lone vote in favor.

"I think it's worthy of discussion," Colligan told his fellow members. "It's been to planning. If we need to postpone to time certain, fine. But I think discussion needs to be had and had in public."

The borough decision comes as a blow to telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless as they build their networks in the Mat-Su, one of the state's fastest growing regions.

Representatives of those companies were not available for comment Wednesday.

The draft ordinance required tower developers notify nearby residents two months before construction starts and hold a meeting -- with no requirement to respond to any concerns -- 30 days after that.

By then, plans for the tower are already set, Beck said Wednesday.

"That's not much of a public process," he said. "I want a process that gives the public the ability to give input before any decisions have been made. I want them to be included in the considerations."

Borough officials said there are no immediate plans to start drafting different tower rules. Beck said he expected that would fall to the planning commission.

The demise of the draft ordinance means tower building remains under a 1999 ordinance that requires a conditional-use permit for towers over 100 feet. Towers under 100 feet are not regulated by those rules though local restrictions -- Sutton's 50-foot limit or various flood-hazard requirements -- still come into play, according to Alex Strawn, the borough planner most closely involved with the tower ordinance process.

There are at least 149 towers recorded in the Mat-Su, though the real number is surely higher because the borough went a year without any tower regulations, Strawn said. Some companies, especially Verizon, checked to make sure they didn't violate any laws during that time, he said.

Sixty-nine of the towers are 100 feet or taller, Strawn said. The borough is currently processing three or four tower permits.

An earlier working group formed in 2008 came up with recommendations to require a permit at 85 feet but make it easier for companies to "colocate" equipment on the same tower to reduce the number built, Strawn said.

The Assembly in November 2011 eliminated all regulations and didn't adopt the working group's recommendations until November 2012.

Within two months, the Assembly brought back the 1999 regulations and then formed the Tall Tower Advisory Committee in late 2012 to write new regulations. The group met six times.

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss had made it clear he sought a streamlined ordinance with a public notification component. The committee later dropped from five to four members. A proposal to require setbacks in case of a falling tower failed 3-1.

Representatives of AT&T and Verizon had urged the committee to weigh the potential for negative effects on their industry before deciding on any setbacks.

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.