November 2007

A towering dilemma: Bluff, Utah, debates putting a cell antenna on its scenic ridge

By David Grant Long

Even while cell-phone towers are spreading like cheatgrass in other areas of the Four Corners, some residents of a bucolic Bluff, Utah, are trying to stave off locating an antenna on the pristine sandstone ridgeline north of their tiny town, even though it would vastly improve service to the area.

Their message is clear: don't mess up the cherished view.        

At a town meeting Oct. 23, the consensus of about five dozen concerned citizens at the crowded community center was strongly against that proposal and in support of an alternate site south of the San Juan River on Red Mesa, part of Navajo reservation lands just across the border in Arizona.

SIMULATION OF WHERE A CELL-PHONE TOWER MIGHT BE LOCATED IN BLUFF, UTAH

One advantage to this alternative site would be that more Diné residents would be able to get coverage. Additionally, that location already has utility lines nearby.

The proposed Bluff location would be leased by CommNet Wireless from SITLA (the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration), an agency that is charged with managing thousands of acres of Utah trust lands to produce revenue for the public school system.

Jack Doggett, representing CommNet, which specializes in building towers in sparsely populated rural areas, discussed those two options for the new tower, which, in addition to the Bluff area, would serve a large area of the Navajo reservation on the south side of the San Juan River.

Doggett, a real-estate agent from Flagstaff, Ariz., said at this point CommNet prefers the Bluff location because of easier access and the shorter length of time involved in getting permits. He said he'd negotiated “dozens” of agreements with the Navajo Nation bureauracy, and would expect the permitting process to take at least a year, compared to six months or more in dealing with the various government entities for the trust-land lease.

As far as the range and quality of the signal, “either one is going to give great coverage,” he said, although a 150-foot tower on Red Mesa would provide the best option, but another drawback to that site is that the last mile or so of the road is in terrible condition.

Under-served

CommNet has contracts with more than 100 cell-phone service companies worldwide, Doggett explained, both common domestic ones such as Verizon and Alltel and international ones used by foreign tourists. The company was attracted to southern Utah because of the dearth of existing service.

He pointed out that until recently, when Alltel installed a tower outside Blanding, all of San Juan County, an area of about 10,000 square miles, had been served by a solitary antenna near Monticello, which resulted in large areas with no service. Even with the addition of a tower in the Bluff area, many spots along the main roads will stilll be without service, he said, because of the “wonderful, dramatic geology here.” Like FM radio frequencies, cell-phone signals are sent and received line-of-sight, he explained, which means any intervening land mass will block them.

“It just doesn't lend itself to (complete) coverage,” he added, “and besides that, no one should be talking on the phone — those roads are too dangerous.”

In deference to local concerns about the “significant” visual impact of the tower, he said, CommNet has agreed to lower the proposed structure from 150 feet to 100 feet.

Charlie DeLorme, head of San Juan County's economic-development office, reminded the Bluff residents that SITLA had no obligation to hold any sort of public hearing before making its decision, and had only done so at the county commission's request.

During a conference in January attended by more than 50 key players representing law enforcement, health care, the school system, public lands and the telecommunications industry, DeLorme said, it became clear that southern San Juan County was the most under-served area, with no landline service and “poor to non-existent wireless service.” Among the cellphone companies, CommNet expressed the most interest in providing wider coverage and recently installed a tower in Monument Valley that is already being heavily used by tourists, the majority of them from other countries and 70 percent of whom use wireless devices for voice, text-message and photo transmissions. And just last month, a tower near Mexican Hat was also activated.

Unending demand

While the primary function of SITLA is to make money for the school system, with 70 percent of its revenue coming from gas and oil leases, resource specialist Gary Bagley said, the driving force behind the increase in tower leases, currently earning around $500,000 a year, is the demand for wider coverage.

“People ask, ‘Why are you doing so many cellphone tower leases nowadays?’” he said. “True, part of it is to make more money for the school trust, but probably the biggest reason is because we have an unending demand from the public saying, 'We want service there, and we want service there.’” He pointed out that the towers are used for emergency communications and broadcast signals in addition to providing phone service.

Those demands are particularly strong on the reservation, where there is little copper-wire service and many folks live in remote and isolated spots where wireless communications are the only practical option. (Doggett jokingly claimed the Navajo words for cell phone are roughly translated as, “The little thing that makes you run to the top of the hill.”)

Public comment at the meeting ranged from the whimsical, with one man asking if the tower could be painted blue to match the sky, to the acerbic, with another man chiding the Bluff residents and reminding them that residents like himself who live in remote areas of southeast Utah have to drive long distances just to make a phone call.

"Everybody in Bluff has got copper lines — they don't depend on cellphone service,” he said. “Anyone who wants to be bull-headed about this, take your copper-line phones out, and take your Internet out and live without it for one month — 30 days — and do like what me and my wife and all my neighbors have done for years.

“When we got to make a phone call, it's 20 miles to town, and it's 20 miles home when you get done,” he said. “It seems kind of one way for a few people to deny a whole bunch of people a little bit of a luxury.”

But the majority of those expressing opinions at the meeting concurred with a woman who stressed that the town residents were not against cellphone service, but rather the location of the tower. When she asked those who agreed with her to stand, threefourths of the audience rose to their feet.

“Please seek another location and allow us to continue to preserve this beautiful place and these beautiful cliffs,” she said, “and I'm sure the Navajo Nation, San Juan County and other people may see the benefit also and help us if there are log jams, red tape and whatever else — it's not an impossibility.” Her remarks were followed by loud applause.

Looming over the town

San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacey expressed his concern about the lack of coverage related to stranded motorists and those involved in car accidents and other emergencies.

“We need service now — we can't wait five or ten years,” Lacy said. “I don't doubt that on the south end (on Navajo land) might be a better place, but as far as the permit process goes, I've been through it and you can't get it (in a timely manner).

“Public safety is a key thing we're looking at here — I have many people who get broke down or have accidents and cannot get out on a cell phone. Search and rescue people have had cell phones in their pockets, but could not contact anybody.”

But many disagree. Opponents of the Bluff site, including local environmentalist Bob Bushart, have created a website at www.ProtectBluff.com that includes several views of the sandstone ridgeline with a superimposed tower dominating the landscape.

The website also catalogues the impacts of the tower on various cultural and historic features, noting that “the town still retains a largely uncluttered visual landscape and a vivid connection to a cultural past that streatches back to ancient times.

“. . . the tower would loom nearly 450 feet above the town (and) would be visible for miles in every direction and from nearly every historic site and ancient ruin,” it states. “The introduction of this structure into the landscape would forever alter the character of the town and detract from the unique tapestry of natural wonder and history that defines it.”

The website also includes a petition against the location, although it had been signed by only 19 people as of Oct. 30.

Excessive optimism?

County Commissioner Lynn Stevens, who attended the Bluff meeting along with Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, offered another account of the bureaucratic morass involved in getting landuse permits from the Navajo tribal government. According to the superintendent at Lake Powell National Recreation Area, Stevens said, it had taken six years to get approval of a permit for improvements on a tower at Navajo Mountain.

“So if Jack can get it done in a year, that's really wonderful,” he said, “but we’ve got another point of reference.”

And Maryboy asserted that providing comprehensive service to the Navajos is “not a luxury for us — it's a necessity.

“If the decision is to take it back across the river (to the reservation), by all means let's do it,” he said, “but if it's going to be here, just as the sheriff indicated . . . whether you like it or not, it's something we have to have.”

After hearing from all parties, Doggett said he would take the comments to the company.

“I'm going to report back to CommNet on your preferred site,” he said, a pledge that was met with loud applause as well. He said he'd already attended a Red Mesa chapter-house meeting in April and met with Commissioner Maryboy.

“The Red Mesa chapter is aware this is going on, but I haven't asked for their approval (yet), because I wouldn't do that unless we were serious.

“But I have the general impression they prefer a site (on the reservation).” In a phone interview after the Bluff meeting, Stevens said the location of the tower was not as important to the commission as how quickly a tower could be installed.

“We need to increase the coverage on that unserved area on the reservation,” he said. “We are a little concerned — including the Navajo commissioner — that there was excessive optimism expressed in that meeting about how rapidly they can get approval from the Navajo Nation to do anything on the reservation.”

He said in a conversation after the meeting, Maryboy, who is also a legislator on the tribal council, said it would be “a miracle” if Doggett could get through the approval process in a year.

“The sheriiff's problem is probably as well defined as any,” he said. “They are now expected to be on the scene in a few minutes or an hour because the belief is that with cell phones and radios, they can be notified.

“When we didn't have cell phones, the pace of expectations was different.”

Stevens said the Bluff residents at the meeting may not have reflected the town's majority opinion.

“There are a lot of people in Bluff who have lived there for long years who will not attend one of those meetings because they've been shouted down and insulted and attacked (in the past) by a relatively new group so that they just stay away.

“So the consensus of those there was to put it on the south side, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the consensus of the people of Bluff.”