When a T-Mobile cell phone tower disguised as a tree is erected in the woods, does it make a sound?
What if it's 75 feet tall and constructed near a beloved park?
What if that park is in the Village of Los Ranchos, an area that prides itself on pretty views and old-school charm?
Then it certainly makes a sound—even before it exists. Just ask the village's Planning and Zoning Commission, which sat through three hours of residents' testimony on why the tower would mar the landscape, while commissioners carefully weighed their decision. They voted 3-1 in favor of the tower. They also approved a variance that would allow the tower to be taller than the 60-foot maximum the village's zoning laws demand to try and prevent the proliferation of towers. At 75 feet, two other companies could co-locate on the monopine, a fake pine tree destined to stand above an area largely populated with 50-foot cottonwoods.
"As much as I don't like it," said Commissioner Hap Crawford, "there doesn't seem to be any other thing [to do]."
Some area residents claim proper notice wasn't given for the commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 19, and question whether the vote to approve the tower was legal. "That many people are here, especially those concerned about notice, speaks for itself," said Sherry Tippet, a lawyer for the village. Attorney Paul Melendres represents the El Caballero Norte Property Owners Association and the Park Watch Group, an organization of neighbors who want to preserve the character of the park. "We were informed by their lawyer that they're filing an appeal," Juan Vigil, a village administrator, said on Friday, Sept. 22. Resident Patti Serna said the fight could also be taken to District Court. "The people in this neighborhood who feel strongly about the cell phone towers feel very strongly about the cell phone towers," she added.
A whiteboard in the small Village Hall reminded residents of one crucial fact: This isn't Albuquerque. "Your mailing address for all mail is: Los Ranchos, Village of Los Ranchos, Los Ranchos de Abq., Los Ranchos de Albuquerque—not Albuquerque," it read.
"One thing about the village, which is so important," Melendres said, "is that you attempt to maintain a community here, a look to which people are drawn. This isn't Albuquerque, where everything is scattershot different places."
Deputy Chief Greg Perez of the village Fire Department made it clear that the cell tower issue is more than just a discussion of aesthetics. "We could care less if it's a pine or if it's a pole," he said at the meeting. "We need a tower to be able to continue to protect and serve as we took an oath to do when each of us became firefighters."
The problem, said Perez, is that often 911 calls placed on cell phones in the void (about a mile-and-a-half radius without tower coverage) aren't picked up by Bernalillo County. Those calls are routed to the Albuquerque Police Department, which passes them on to the county's communication center. Then, Perez said, Bernalillo County has to figure out if the call came from Los Ranchos and reroute it.
That means a five- to seven-minute delay that can be crucial, Perez added, in an emergency situation. "I think it's time that we as a community begin to look at the health and safety of our residents and not be hung up on what things are going to look like all the time," he said. "This is one area where something has to be done, and something needs to be done quickly. We've been dragging on it for quite some time."
If the commission vote makes it out of the fray all right and if the Board of Trustees approves everything, this might be the conclusion to an issue that began appearing in the news as early as January of this year. But the attempt to put a cell phone tower at the center of the village is much older. "All of the companies I know of have been trying to build a site here for 10 years," said Nick Romano, an agent for T-Mobile, who was at the meeting to make his case.
Residents and their attorney, Melendres, wanted to know why the tower has to stand behind the Village Hall next to the park. "Many of the neighbors in this area have lived here a long time and watched our children grow up in the park," Marian Shelton, vice president of the association, told the commission.
Serna believes the real issue is "the village is having a very hard time backing away from the bucks." T-Mobile would pay Los Ranchos a monthly fee to lease the land the monopine would sit on for up to 25 years. That fee has not yet been negotiated, though on average, Vigil's heard that leases can generate as much as $1,200 a month.
The association and the Park Watch Group hired their own consultant, Mel Patterson, to examine whether the tower could be built somewhere else. "We are not opposed to improving cell service in Los Ranchos at all," he said. "We still really don't know whether another site would work," he added, after calling into question the argument T-Mobile made that the spot visible from Rio Grande is the best place for the tower.
Though Los Ranchos Mayor Larry Abraham did not appear at the meeting, an advance copy of his October newsletter was left on every chair in the hall. In it, Abraham outlined the reasoning behind the tower's placement. It must be located on property that is zoned a certain way, he wrote. In Los Ranchos, that means along the Fourth Street corridor or behind the village hall. There are several towers along Fourth already, he noted, and a larger one with the capacity to cover the village's void might interfere with other towers in the area. "Had any location on Fourth Street been acceptable, the private sector would have taken care of this problem a long time ago."