Medina residents are fighting a proposal for a cellphone tower in a neighborhood park. They’ve intervened in a federal lawsuit and are now negotiating for an alternate site.
To some Medina residents, the cell tower that rises at the southern edge of Fairweather Park and Nature Preserve resembles a big middle finger thrust at the surrounding community.
The 45-foot tower was placed there temporarily in 2013 when construction of the new Highway 520 bridge forced its relocation. But a proposal to permanently replace it with an 80-foot pole and an adjoining equipment bunker has drawn a lawsuit and protests about turning part of a grassy field meant for public recreation and play into what opponents call “an industrial cell-tower facility.”
“Medina’s parks should be the last option for siting a cell tower, not the first,” said Cindy Adkins, founder and past president of RespectMedina, a citizens group that has joined in a federal lawsuit over the cell-tower placement. Adkins was elected to the City Council in November with 66 percent of the vote. Opposition to the tower was at the center of her campaign.
City officials say the location at the edge of the park, adjacent to the 520-Evergreen Point Road lid, has the least impact on neighbors while also providing income to the city — $32,000 last year— from the cell-tower lease. And they say poor cellphone coverage has been a source of complaints for years in this wealthy lakeside hamlet of more than 3,000 residents.
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“Everyone wants coverage, and no one wants a tower,” said City Councilmember Patrick Boyd, who has urged the city to capitalize on potential cell-tower revenue. “Every dollar we get from them (cell-tower providers) is money we don’t have to get from taxes,” he said.
The litigation is on hold while residents and the tower applicant, Independent Towers, and provider, T-Mobile, negotiate a possible alternate site. But word of other locations has riled neighbors who fear the next site could be visible from their own homes.
The city of Medina now says it no longer wants to be a part of the discussions. Instead, officials plan to ask a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, brought by the cellphone companies, to force the city to locate the tower. The city now wants the companies to submit a new request.
“In the interests of fairness and transparency, the city’s involvement in approving an alternative location needs to happen through the usual public permitting process and not through negotiations,” said the city’s attorney, Jeff Ganson.
That’s a reversal of the position that put the city at odds with its residents.
In 2014, a city hearing examiner denied Independent Towers’ request for a special-use permit and variances to put the 80-foot pole and 1,525-square-foot equipment vault in Fairweather Park.
The hearing examiner said Independent Towers, which builds towers that cellphone providers then lease — sometimes known as a vertical landlord — had not proved the facility was the least intrusive that could be built in a residential setting, as required by Medina’s land-use code.
The applicant also failed to show that an 80-foot tower was necessary to avoid significant coverage gaps along Highway 520, another requirement of the city, the hearing examiner concluded.
Independent Towers and T-Mobile sued the city in federal court, arguing FCC regulations don’t allow a local jurisdiction to deny permits necessary to fill a gap in coverage. The city and the cell companies began negotiations to resolve the dispute.
That’s when neighbors and RespectMedina jumped in as intervenors, concerned the city would not defend its own hearing examiner’s ruling. They argued the city’s interest in revenue from the cell-tower lease was diametrically opposed to its regulatory responsibilities and the interests of the pro-park neighbors.
A federal judge agreed.
“While the City, like any other defendant, is free to settle a suit rather than prolong the litigation, it may not do so in a way that violates its own ordinances and zoning regulations,” wrote U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.
The cell-tower company still hopes another site can be agreed upon. Steve Gosnell, a partner in Independent Towers, called Medina “a tough jurisdiction” to site a facility and said his company has spent a lot of money on permit applications and litigation.
“I hope we can find a mutually agreeable location,” he said, adding the proposed 80-foot pole “creates an opportunity for many providers to be located in one spot” and avoid the visual clutter of multiple poles.
Critics in the city, including Adkins, said a pole that tall can also host numerous providers and generate a lot of revenue for the company, at the expense of residents who value their parks and don’t want to see them commercialized.
“The city has an obligation to protect the parks and natural areas, now and for future generations,” Adkins said.
Since being sworn into office this month, Adkins has resigned as president of RespectMedina, and her husband, a co-founder, will also distance himself from the organization, she said.
But that hasn’t stopped some residents from asking her to recuse herself from any council actions on the cell-tower issue. Councilmember Boyd notes that Adkins owns a rental property across the street from Fairweather Park and so has a potential financial interest in the tower’s location.
“I certainly, in that position, would recuse myself,” Boyd said.
Another resident, Jennifer Garone, has called for Adkins to recuse herself.
“She owns property diagonal from the park. As a lawyer and someone so passionately interested, she shouldn’t be involved,” Garone said.
Adkins said that in such a small town, every council member has an interest in the issues that come before them. “Having strong opinions, and being passionate about issues and legislation that are important to my community, is not a conflict — it’s being an effective elected representative in a participatory democracy,” she said.
Another resident, Heija Nunn, argues all the City Council members who initially approved the contract with Independent Towers and who supported a negotiated settlement that ignored the hearing examiner’s ruling, should recuse themselves.
“They inserted themselves into a land-use decision where they didn’t belong,” Nunn said.
She isn’t a member of RespectMedina and doesn’t live near the park. But she’s critical of the role the city has played in awarding the contract and recommending placement of the tower in the park playfield.
“The opponents are not NIMBYs worried about their views. They’re asking, ‘Does a cell tower belong in a park?’ The obvious answer is, ‘No.’ Not when there are other options,” Nunn said.