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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Court hears arguments in cell phone tower dispute

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/15/11

Both sides in the dispute over a 450-foot cell phone tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness had a chance to state their case to a Hennepin County District Court judge this …

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Court hears arguments in cell phone tower dispute


Both sides in the dispute over a 450-foot cell phone tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness had a chance to state their case to a Hennepin County District Court judge this week.

The trial, before Judge Philip Bush, will likely determine whether AT&T Mobility can build its proposed tower over the objections of wilderness advocates. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness filed suit to block the tower project last June after its attempts to persuade the company to consider other less-obtrusive designs were rebuffed.

“We recognize the desire of area residents to have better coverage, and we believe AT&T has viable options that would provide quality coverage to the area without impairing the most popular wilderness area in the country,” said Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, in a statement issued this week.

The Friends, which is represented by Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, is challenging the project under the provisions of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which gives citizens the right to sue to block projects that have the potential to diminish environmental quality. The Friends argued this week that the blinking strobe light from the cell phone tower will be visible across a wide swath of the Boundary Waters, including nearly at least a dozen popular wilderness lakes. A study by AT&T confirmed that the tower would be visible from several wilderness lakes, including parts of Basswood, South Farm, Fall, Newton, Mud, Muskeg, Ella Hall, Clear and Wood. The tower would also be visible along several stretches of the Kawishiwi River. Witnesses for the Friends, including Ely wilderness outfitter Steve Piragis, argued that the intrusion of the tower into the wilderness viewshed would significantly diminish the quality of the wilderness experience.

The Friends also raised concerns about the tower’s impact on migrating birds, a concern also raised by the Department of Natural Resources and independent ornithologists. U.S. Fish and Wildlife guidelines discourage the construction of tall, lighted, guy-wired towers due, in part, to their impact on bird populations. The Friends argued that a 199-foot tower alternative, would eliminate the need for lighting and guy wires, without substantially reducing cell phone coverage to residents of Fall Lake Township.

In filings to the court, the Friends point to a precedent-setting ruling from 1990 in which the state Court of Appeals blocked construction of a 600-foot FM radio tower near Grand Marais over concerns about impacts to the wilderness.

AT&T Mobility counters, pointing to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that they say set limits on the power of the MERA to limit projects. In addition, AT&T argues that the tower will extend cell phone coverage to areas east of Ely as well as parts of the wilderness where it is currently unavailable. Company officials contend improved cell phone coverage will enhance the safety of wilderness visitors, by allowing them to access outside assistance in the event of emergency.

At&T also argued this week that the federal Telecommunications Act exempted the cell phone tower from the provisions of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. But the Friends countered, noting that the TCA does not supersede state or local environmental or zoning laws.

The tower would be located on a ridge near Fall Lake. Local township officials in the area have offered support for the tower project, noting that cell phone coverage in areas to the east of Ely is spotty at best.

The trial was ongoing as of presstime. A decision in the case is likely weeks away.


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Obviously, there are alternatives to the tower with a flashing light. Protect the wilderness experience. If you want excellent cellphone service try a different zipcode!

    p.s. I have crappy cell phone service and often drive to a different spot to get a call.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011 Report this

  • I don't see any rebuttal by AT&T to the proposition that it (or others) could provide the same level of service with smaller less obtrusive towers. It's obvious AT&T's concern is its bottom line. Will it provide space on this tower to other phone companies--not all of us have AT&T? Wouldn't it if the concern the goal to provide broader cell service rather than line its pockets? Come on folks, there is a logical, sensible middle ground. Shorter less obtrusive towers providing the same level of service. Will some one please tell me why that won't work?

    Monday, April 18, 2011 Report this

  • centralmnusa - Obviously you are one of the out-of-towners that want to be able to use our area for your recreation and the hell with what the locals want. Apparently you think we are not entitled to have modern conveniences and change with the times. There are people in the mentioned area that need cell coverage. The tower is not going to change your "wilderness experience". And as for telling area people to try a different zip code, why should we? Maybe you should try your wilderness experience in your own backyard!

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    AT & T should consider a shorter tower. They have one motive profit and that ispartially legit for that is the reason they are in business, but the best solution for all (BWCA and community) would be a compromise on a couple of shorter towers. It would be nice to see a chart of coverage with different size towers. AT&T does not have a good track record of compromise. You have not seen one alternative solution by them that I know of.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 Report this