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Neighbors worry cell tower will ruin pastoral lives

Monday, September 22, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Plans by Verizon Communications to construct a cell tower in the Regal Oaks neighborhood in rural Hays County have residents of the area upset over both its planned placement and their apparent inability to do anything about it. The 250-foot tall, freestanding tower is planned for a location that is within a few hundred feet of several homes in the rural neighborhood, but is designed primarily to serve the growing Belterra subdivision.


“It’s just not the right thing to do,” said Melody Kuhns, who lives with her husband Steve at 10300 Signal Hill View. “We feel that not only will it hurt our property values out here, and we have some serious concerns about the health risks involved in living so close to a tower that generates electromagnetic fields. There are several families close to where they want to put this that have small children.”


The problem, according to Kuhns, who is organizing the area to oppose the tower, is that all the local governmental entities that have jurisdiction over the area say they have almost no authority to regulate what Verizon does. Hays County officials say they currently have no authority to control development in the area, and the City of Austin, which has the area in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, can make recommendations but has no authority over land use. 


Verizon has completed a contract with a local landowner, Stephen Engel, to construct the tower in his back yard at 10930 Signal View Hill. According to a letter Verizon sent neighbors, the site was chosen in June after the company determined that there was sufficient population density in the area to install a new tower, drew a circle around the area it needed to serve and began searching for a site near the center for the tower. Engel told his neighbors that Verizon offered him a contract to use his land and that he accepted.


Verizon spokeswoman Audrey Lundy said the company considered co-locating its equipment on an existing 400-foot tower in the area, but determined that it did not meet their needs.


“The existing tower is too far from the targeted coverage area, so using it would not enable Verizon to provide the level of service that customers are accustomed to receiving,” Lundy said in a written statement. “The cell site will help efforts to increase the capacity and enhance the quality of voice data network in the area.”


Austin officials must administratively approve the project, but Chris Yanez with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department said that while land use regulations do not apply in the ETJ, environmental regulations do.


“That project is still in the review process,” he said. ”They still have to report on drainage, water quality and other issues before we will issue a permit. They have until Jan. 9, 2009 to complete that review, though they may ask for an additional 180 days to complete their permit.” 


The area is in the Barton Springs aquifer recharge zone, and is close to Bear Creek. Area residents are able to submit comments about the project’s environmental impact.


However, according to Kuhns, the Regal Oaks neighbors are in a poor position to fight the tower on any legal grounds.


“Our attorney tells me that our best chance of dealing with it is going to be after the fact when we can prove damages,” she said. “If it falls down and damages something, or if someone can prove that it significantly affected their property values, then there are court precedents in our favor. But there isn’t much we can do before they build it except try to get Verizon to see what a poor choice the location is.”


She said it appears that executives at Verizon are not aware of the situation, as the company uses outside contractors to find tower locations, get them permitted and to build them. She said a firm, Vincent Gerard and Associates, is handling the siting of this tower for Verizon.


Another thing upsetting residents of Regal Oaks is an unconfirmed report that the tower was originally planned in the Belterra development but that several homeowners there complained so it was moved to the nearby area. Verizon officials would not comment on whether or not that was accurate.


Area residents, led by Kuhns and her husband, are planning a strategy meeting on Oct 1 at the Nutty Brown Café on US 290. Kuhns said they would discuss future steps to take in hopes of convincing Verizon to consider other locations.

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