County to bring stricter cell tower rules on line

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By AJ Vicens

Jefferson County says its regulations on cell phone towers will be tougher when changes are made to zoning and permit laws this spring.

But for the many people upset when cell towers seemingly pop up out of nowhere in their neighborhoods, there still will be no formal notification system.

County officials say residents who want to know if a tower is coming to their area will have to search the county's permit database or look for signs on private land indicating a special-use permit.

"There's nothing that requires us to provide notification," said Tim Carl, the county's director of development and transportation.

The new regulations would require special-use applications for towers along local and collector street rights-of-way, and would toughen the requirements for camouflaging cell towers — i.e., as fake flag poles, fake trees, or by having buildings around the towers. The regulations also would add a layer of inspection to ensure that the towers are built as planned.

Design standards for cell towers — laid out in Section 7 of the Jefferson County Zoning Resolution — are already fairly stringent. At minimum, a cell tower and antenna must, among other requirements use materials, colors, textures, screening and landscaping that will blend it into the surrounding community. If the antenna is installed on something other than a tower, it must be a color that blends with the supporting structure. Accessory equipment for cell towers must be enclosed and grouped together as close as possible. The collection of equipment cannot exceed 400 square feet.

The county also has what it calls "highest design standards," which outline how to conceal and camouflage cell towers. Under these guidelines, towers must be "completely hidden from view within a structure likely to exist in, and architecturally compatible with an area, such as within a clock tower in a commercial area."

For instance, cell towers should be hidden in a "natural-looking ponderosa pine in a pine forested area," or "a properly proportioned silo in an agricultural area." Cell service providers can't put tree-like towers in an empty field or create a "flagpole" that is clearly out of place.

Cell towers can't be located on single-family-zoned residential property but in some cases can be located on multi-family lots and some agricultural-zoned property.

The proposed inspection layer to the masked equipment requirement should ensure that providers are camouflaging their equipment better, the county says.

Carl, Zoning Administrator Mike Chadwick and Planning and Zoning Director John Wolforth briefed the commissioners on the changes Feb. 10.

Chadwick said that with increased cell phone functions and providers' need to fill in dead zones, the county needs to address the problem.

"We're seeing more of an emphasis on residential areas because more people have cell phones only," Chadwick said. Areas around Southwest Plaza Mall and Mr. Biggs, which traditionally have been spotty coverage areas for cell phones, are being targeted by providers, Chadwick said.

Chadwick said cell service providers will likely fight stricter standards for camouflaging cell towers and other communication devices because it will cost them more money.

Carl said Jeffco was one of the first jurisdictions in the country to regulate communications devices with the 1985 Telecommunications Land Use Plan. The policies associated with the plan were updated in 1993 and 1994. In 1996, the federal government passed the Telecommunications Act, which established standards and restrictions on how local governments regulate cell phone towers. The federal law said that local governments cannot regulate the output of towers above 1,000 watts but could regulate where they are and their structural integrity.

Carl said that there will be time for the public to comment on the proposed regulation changes before they are adopted toward the end of spring, but he didn't identify the venue or the time.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.