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 …
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.