A decades-long controversy in Wayzata over whether ever-increasing cellphone equipment should be in a city park is nearing a final decision.
For years, residents who live next to the park have pushed for the cellphone equipment to be put elsewhere, saying it’s a safety hazard and eyesore for the residential neighborhood. Crews are also working at the site every week, they say, upgrading equipment to meet growing demands for popular smartphones.
“I think this has become the dumping ground for the city,” longtime resident Cathy Carlson said. “We feel like we’re being trampled on.”
But, the City Council says relocating it could be costly and could disrupt cell service for thousands of area residents. Last week, the council approved a nearly $10,000 study to explore how to improve the aesthetics around the current site — the last of three studies of the issue over the last six years.
“We’re trying to come up with a solution that’s acceptable to everybody,” Mayor Ken Willcox said. “There’s no easy answer here. We’re going to have to weigh the negatives of moving it with the negatives of sprucing it up where it is.”
When the study wraps up this summer, the council expects to make a final decision on the cell equipment’s fate. If it’s not relocated, improvements could be made this fall at the current site, such as a new fence or landscaping, shifting equipment a few yards away to the city’s water treatment center or burying it underground.
Those options do little to appease residents like Carlson and her husband, Dale.
“Covering this up isn’t going to solve the problem,” he said, adding about the cell companies: “They’re businesses; [city leaders] are really afraid of it. I don’t know of any business you could plop down at the [city’s] beach.”
Adding cell equipment
The dispute has been going on for decades.
In 1985, a cellphone company later bought out by AT&T approached the city about leasing space for antennas on its water tower in Klapprich Park. It’s a natural place for cell companies across the Twin Cities because cities’ water towers are high up for good service, said Dave Dudinsky, the city’s director of public service.
“At the time, it was a win/win for the city,” he said. “Technology is changing yearly and there’s much more demand for service since smartphones have come out.”
Now, four companies have equipment there, spikes of antennas sticking out the top of the water tower and equipment coiled around the tower. Ground equipment next to the water tower like a trailer-sized station is surrounded by a 10-foot-high green fence.
“It just grows and grows,” Dale Carlson said.
Another longtime resident, Susan Hughes, told the City Council last week that the refusal to relocate the equipment is a “grave injustice” for the city and the park.
“This is our biggest park and you’ve made it into industrial blight,” she told the council.
Residents’ complaints prompted studies over relocating the equipment in 2008 and again in 2012. The conclusion: It was expensive to relocate and doing so could disrupt area residents’ cell service because the equipment wouldn’t be in the central part of the city and would be lower to the ground.
“We know the tenants are unenthusiastic about moving,” Willcox said.
That’s the cell companies’ problem, countered Council Member Bridget Anderson.
“We have made more than enough money off these contracts and it’s a drop in the bucket to what it would cost to fully remove that footprint or move it to another location,” she said at last week’s meeting.
Leasing space from the city has translated to nearly $300,000 a year in revenue that goes to repairing the city’s streets or its water system.
If cell equipment were relocated, the companies could opt to drop out, cutting off that revenue. Dudinsky also said a federal telecommunications law requires cities to accommodate cell companies to a certain degree, and disrupting their service could open up the city to a lawsuit from companies.
Plus, council member Andrew Mullin said, they’d likely hear from many angry residents if cell service were disrupted. He was the lone council vote against the decision to pay consultant SEH nearly $10,000 for the study, saying he didn’t want to waste taxpayer money on another study when they have enough information to improve the site.
“Why wait? Let’s get after a compromise now,” he said.
Another $25,000 was spent on the 2012 study, Dudinsky said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on trying to resolve this,” he said. “We’re trying to find a viable solution.”
But the residents say that, unlike the city, they have no alternative — except to move.
“They’ve been kicking this can down the road,” said Hughes’ husband, Mark.
Now, he and his wife are anxious for a resolution.
“It’s disrespectful to us,” she said. “We understand the construction but this should have an end. This never has an ending.”