December 2007

Victory for a view: Commnet opts not to put a cell tower on Bluff's ridgeline

By David Grant Long

A 150-foot cell tower once proposed to be built on a scenic ridgeline near Bluff, Utah, apparently will have a different home.

A PHOTO ILLUSTRATION OF HOW A 150-FOOT CELL TOWER WOULD HAVE LOOKED ON THE RIDGELINE ABOVE BLUFF, UTAHIn response to widespread community objection among Bluff residents to despoiling one of the town's most prominent geologic features, Commnet Wireless recently announced it is pursuing an alternative site on the Navajo reservation for the cell-phone tower rather than the initially preferred Bluff location, which only weeks ago appeared to be pretty much a done deal.

But organized opposition — including a petition signed by more than 200 people and a website vividly portraying the tower's impact — culminated in a crowded town meeting in late October where the overwhelming sentiment was against construction of an antenna that would dominate what's referred to as “the viewshed” for miles in every direction.

“In response to that community in put, Commnet is currently evaluating a new location for its proposed tower location on the south side of the San Juan River, near the San Juan County TV site which is on land owned by the Navajo Nation,” the company announced in a paid advertisment in the Nov. 28 San Juan Record. “Citizens stated that they viewed this site as being impacted by the existing structures [electric power lines and towers run nearbyl] and therefore their choice as the best location for a cell towner in the Bluff vicinity.”

Supporters of the Bluff location, including San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy, had emphasized the need to have communications improved as quickly as possible for public-safety reasons, and predicted gaining approval for the tower on Navajo land could be a cumbersome process involving years of dealing with the Diné bureacracy.

But apparently efforts are under way to expedite that process, according to Charles DeLorme, head of the county's economic development office.

"[CommNet] responded in a very positive and concilitory fashion to the majority of residents' concerns over the viewshed issue," DeLorme said, adding that Commnet representative Jack Doggett had informed him a survey of the new site was under way and a resolution for the authorization had been introduced through the Mexican Water Chapter of the Diné Nation, as well as a support resolution from the Red Mesa Chapter, many of whose residents would benefit from the service.

“To be perfectly blunt,” DeLorme added, “NTUA — Navajo Communications — could move forward without chapter resolution on these particular types of issues, but the prudent thing to do, in my opinion, was to network it from the chapter level from the beginning and find out if you're going to run into opposition.

“So that's what they've done, and they've received chapter resolutions supporting this.”

He said officials of the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which wends through the Four Corners states, had also received e-mails objecting to building the tower above Bluff.

“Commnet is undertaking environmental surveys of the new site and consulting with the Navajo Chapters,” the release said. “As with the first [Bluff] location, the public notice will soon be issued including information regarding the specific tower and location.” The site would be located on an area of Red Mesa known to some as Echo Mesa.

There are still those in the Bluff area opposed to a cell tower being built anywhere because of health concerns and a belief that the transmissions disrupt the flight patterns of honeybees, DeLorme noted.

“There may be some issues there," he said. “To be frank, there are probably some long-term effects that we may not know of . . . until 40 or 50 years down the road.”

DeLorme, himself a resident of the Bluff area who said he'd supported the tower there even though it would have been visible out his bedroom window, came under severe criticism by fellow Bluffian Bob Bushart, one of the organizers of the opposition, for an email DeLorme had sent to some Navajo reservation residents prior to the Oct. 23 meeting.

The e-mail urged them to support the original location and accused white opponents, who were referred to as “the belagana,” of having little regard for the Native Americans' plight.

“All the protestors have their land line telephones and could not care less that many don't have that option,” DeLorme wrote in the widely circulated e-mail, urging them to “mobilize our pro-Bluff forces among the Dineh community.”

Bushart wrote a detailed, acerbic letter to the San Juan Record castigating DeLorme for his statements and pre- sented a petition to the county commission asking for DeLorme's termination, which the commission declined to accept.

DeLorme said Bushart had a personal axe to grind because of prior conflicts between them, but conceded the e-mail went beyond good taste.

“There's no excuse, perhaps, for some of the statements that have offended people that I may have made, which were on my personal email and personal time, but there's also no excuse for personal attacks,” DeLorme said.

He said the e-mail had been investigated by the county and discussed in a meeting with the human-resources head.

“I expressed my apologies for offending anyone and I was censured in that meeting for the use of my language,” he said. “It was dealt with in a proper HR fashion in accordance with our policies, and that was it.

“But it wasn't it as far as Bob was concerned — he says I've created divisiveness among the Anglo and Diné communities," he added, saying that the wide circulation by Bushart of an e-mail intended for just two people only fanned the flames.

“If he's concerned about divisiveness, he's certainly added a tremendous amount of fuel to the fire I started.”

Bushart said he and the other opponents are “pretty happy [Commnet] decided to move it, if indeed they do. The public notice certainly implied they're moving it, so I think we're pretty much believing it.”

He denied his opposition to the tower and criticism of DeLorme were rooted in any personal conflict and scoffed at the idea DeLorme had been disciplined by the county.

“This was never personal, and it was always in conjunction with his position as a county employee,” Bushart said. "If he apologized publicly at a commission meeting, I must not have been there,” said Bushart, who said he attends nearly all of the meetings.

DeLorme said he had no clear idea of any timeline for completion of the new tower, but apparently Commnet is expecting fairly smooth sailing, according to its public notice:

“Commnet looks forward to providing this cellular service in 2008,” it says.