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Residents get hearing but no help on tower from Hays County

Monday, October 20, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

When Hays County Commissioners took up an agenda item to change language in the county’s flood damage prevention order last week, it provided an opening for a resident of Regal Oaks and a Verizon attorney to exchange words over a proposed cell phone tower in the subdivision.


Located in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction but within Hays County, the neighbors have been organizing against the cell tower since they learned of its impending construction in August.


Although Hays County Commissioners insist that the change in wording grants the county no further authority, because the tower will be in a flood plain, citizens brought the matter to the court pleading for some kind of intervention.


However, before commissioners could rule on the change, a number of speakers used the public comment period to voice their concerns about the 250-foot tall cell phone tower that would be erected in their neighborhood.


Steve Kuhns complained about the lack of regulations concerning the placement, height or design of the tower. “Since Verizon is requesting flood plain permitting I am concerned not only about building a commercial structure in a flood plain area, but also the total disregard from this corporate predator for the residents of Regal Oaks,” he said. Kuhns stated that he and his wife have lived on Signal Hill Road for nine years and have witnessed “virtual rivers go across Signal Hill Road,” and onto the property where the tower would be erected. Kuhns wondered aloud “what would happen if the water level ever rose to a height that would destabilize the foundation of the cell phone tower or the proposed radio transmission equipment at the base of the tower.”


Kuhns also expressed the concern, mirrored by several others who spoke, that home values would plummet in the face of the tower’s presence. He also pointed out the frustration residents have had trying to communicate with the wireless carrier, “Verizon is a large corporation, whose decision makers do not reside in Hays County. We do reside in Hays and should have some say in our neighborhood. Verizon has failed to communicate with the residents of the neighborhood they plan to destroy,” he continued, “They insulate themselves by requiring everything go through attorneys rather than speak to us directly.” He insisted that the corporation only cared about profits and not the twenty-odd residents.


Another speaker, Don Rogers, spoke on the possible health risks the tower could pose, specifically that it could give residents cancer. He also said that a realtor told him to expect a $100-200,000 devaluation of his home.  Rogers, saying his wife just had to have her sternum replaced due to cancer said such a loss “isn’t a concern compared to the health reasons.”


The flood plain administrator typically approves such permits at the staff level for the County.  Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford said that she had seen the center of this coverage pattern, is “right smack in the middle of Belterra subdivision.” She did caution the court that the county should look at the recent developments around the neighborhood that may have changed the flood plain and water runoff.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley said that “the revisions and what counsel is asking us to do has no direct relation to this issue,” to which attorney Mark Kennedy responded that the only direct relation is that after the changes, the staff would go back to work evaluating several permits that have been held up awaiting the modification.  Kennedy said the concerns don’t “relate to the flood plain” and thus, the county wouldn’t really be able to do much. In addition, because only a rule change was posted for the day’s proceedings, Kennedy did not think it appropriate to stall the permit. In Hays County, only the applicant can appeal a permit.


Brock Bailey from the law firm Bracewell and Guiliani of Dallas spoke on Verizon’s behalf. He said that Verizon was “trying to play by the rules” and told the Court that the proposed site was in “Flood Zone X, not a special flood hazard.” Despite the wishes of residents, Verizon has a lease with the property owner, he said “and we’re frankly entitled under your rules to the exemption. We’ve followed those rules to the letter.”


Conley had some tough words for the attorney. “What’s Verizon’s policy on the sensitivity to neighbors and to the land value…beyond the public safety issues, what does Verizon do to mitigate that to the best of their ability?” He pressed for answers as to why the company had not located the tower elsewhere.


Judge Liz Sumter wanted to know if there was a buffer area from the residential homes and was told there is not one required in the Austin ETJ or Hays County. She also told the neighbors, “I’m going to be asking you for your help, we have the Hill Country Coalition of Counties…working very hard for legislation that will allow counties to use buffer zones or legislation for these particular purposes.” The 15-county coalition will be lobbying the state legislature in the coming months, she said.

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