A cell phone tower planned for a tourism gateway on the St. Croix River is drawing fire from opponents upset with its height and visibility.

The 150-foot tower, owned by AT&T, will be erected on private land in Franconia Township, near Taylors Falls. Chisago County commissioners voted 3-2 recently to approve construction despite objections from conservationists and some residents who said the tower would intrude on the river valley's vistas.

One opposing commissioner, Lora Walker, said the tower also threatens the area's strong appeal to tourists. Her motion to delay the vote until a wider public discussion could take place died for lack of a second.

"It may be the first board in the history of Chisago County that's approved a tower on the St. Croix," she said. "That alone speaks loudly about what this community has valued over the years."

But AT&T spokesman Tom Hopkins said the company chose a site more than a mile from the river, in dense tree coverage, in an effort to keep it as unobtrusive as possible.

"We are very sensitive to the concerns of residents and others for both aesthetics and cell coverage," he said. "... We think that we have maintained the integrity of the river's aesthetics while delivering a level of wireless services that residents demand and expect."

A conflicting point of view comes from the superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a unit of the National Park Service. Chris Stein wrote in a Jan. 19 letter that the tower in its current design isn't in the public interest. Its top would stand 1,060 feet above sea level, he wrote, compared with the St. Croix River in the Franconia area at 690 feet. Computer models showed it might be visible up to 3 miles south on the river, he wrote.

"The NPS understands the need for dependable telecommunications, especially as needed for emergency response," Stein wrote. "However, telecommunications should not come at the expense of the scenic value of the Riverway or the St. Croix River Valley."

Stein and Dan Willius, chairman of the St. Croix River Association, asked AT&T to move the tower elsewhere or consider a "stealth" design that resembles a pine tree. Such a tower was built two years ago in Afton after the Washington County Sheriff's Office said emergency services were having trouble receiving signals.

Tower will fill reception 'hole'

The Franconia tower will serve AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint-Nextel customers, said Steve Trueman, a site contractor who made public presentations on behalf of AT&T in Chisago County. The tower will have a reach of 3 miles in each direction to remedy a "hole" that drops cell phone calls, he said.

But John Hock, artistic director at nearby Franconia Sculpture Park, said he lives nearby and his T-Mobile cell phone works just fine. The tower will stand far above surrounding trees, which are 40 feet tall, Hock said.

"I don't care what color you paint it. When the weather changes, it's going to stick out," he said. "The bigger concern is what it's doing to our scenic gateway."

The tower will be built on land owned by Gerald and Connie Vitalis at the junction of Hwys. 8 and 95 a few miles southwest of Taylors Falls. They could not be reached for comment. Trueman said AT&T will lease the site for 25 years and construction will cost $200,000 to $250,000 and starts this spring.

Trueman said the proposal was aired publicly, and opponents were given a chance to respond. AT&T "did this thing by the book," he said.

Willius said he's heard arguments that one more tower won't make a difference on the St. Croix. "That's what everybody says about every little thing that comes along to degrade the environment," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342