Everyone wants better cell service, but not all want to see where it comes from.
As the rise of smartphones puts more pressure on phone companies to constantly update equipment and build more towers, it also puts them at odds with cities and residents over where to put them without being a visual nuisance.
This week, Minnetonka denied AT&T’s request to put a 90-foot cellphone tower next to a synagogue after neighbors opposed it; city leaders said it could go on a light pole that already has cell antennas. In Wayzata, a hilltop neighborhood is up in arms over ever-growing cellphone equipment in a park. And in Lakeville, residents’ criticism of a proposed 150-foot Verizon Wireless cellphone tower in their neighborhood has put plans on hold since March.
“For the cities, it’s often a difficult thing to balance,” said Garrett Lysiak, whose Shoreview-based Owl Engineering is hired by counties and cities like Minnetonka to analyze telecommunications reports. “There are people screaming for more coverage from carriers … and the carriers are in need of new sites. But the cities aren’t allowing it to go in residential areas … it’s a challenge to find a spot.”
While cellphone towers are getting smaller, he said, there is a need for more of them closer together to meet the demand from smartphones, tablets and other devices that people want to use wherever they are.
“Everybody wants movies while they’re driving, e-mails while they’re walking,” he told Minnetonka’s Planning Commission last month. “It’s crazy to me, but they just want more and more.”
Federal law requires that cities allow for adequate coverage — not maximum coverage — and says that they can’t discriminate between providers or ban construction in certain areas, though they can regulate it.
Many cities prefer that equipment go on existing structures to reduce new cell towers and tend to approve equipment on water towers, light poles, schools or fire stations, with the leasing revenue going to the city or schools. But with demand for better service and more data in more places, cell requests increasingly are going to come up in residential areas, industry experts say.
“There’s a need for cell towers in residential areas because of population growth and the increase in demand for data capacity,” Verizon spokeswoman Karen Smith said. “We pride ourselves in having a reliable network, and that means more cell towers.”
90-foot cell tower denied
In some cities, companies are getting creative with hiding antennae and wires. In Burnsville, Verizon built a cell tower in a church banner outside Church of the Risen Savior.
In Eden Prairie, a tall cell tower outside United Methodist Church is topped with a cross. In Lakeville, Verizon just got approval to build a 60-foot cell pole that resembles an oversized flagpole outside a bank. And near Afton State Park, an 110-foot county emergency communications tower resembles a pine tree to try to blend in.
“In a developed area, it’s a challenge to find open space,” said Frank Dempsey, Lakeville’s associate city planner.
Like Lakeville, Minnetonka also prefers that cell equipment go on existing structures and requires that companies prove that there are no other structures that could serve the area adequately. That’s why the City Council denied AT&T’s request for a 90-foot tower at Adath Jeshurun Congregation off Hillside Lane W., saying it could go on an 80-foot light pole at Hopkins High School’s stadium that already has cell equipment and is farther from homes.
The company that represented AT&T argued that it would provide better coverage for their customers north of Interstate 394 and that as a stealth tower, the monopole would have no antennas sticking out and would be masked by trees.
But some residents disagreed that it belonged there.
“A 90-foot pole? It has a commercial feel,” said Vicki Riven, a nearby resident. “This is a neighborhood; put it somewhere it won’t be an eyesore to people who are in living in their back yard.”
In Lysiak’s 30 years in business, it was the first time he recommended that a city deny a project for its engineering, he said. But, he added, resident opposition isn’t unusual over tower proposals.
In Wayzata, residents have long been against four cellphone companies putting equipment and antennas on and next to a water tower in a city park. They say the ever-increasing equipment is a safety hazard and “industrial blight” for the neighborhood.
“Our neighborhood can no longer share the neighborhood with the telecom industry,” resident Lucy Bruntjen said.
The city has done studies over the years for solutions to the decades-long controversy but says relocating all the equipment could be costly and disrupt service. Plus the city gets nearly $300,000 a year from the companies that goes to repairing the city’s streets or its water system.
The city now is researching costs of moving some of the equipment to one monopole near the park or two monopoles across the city. Residents just want a solution.
“I would like it out of the park,” resident Susan Hughes said, “and out of our neighborhood.”