It was a sharp-eyed county secretary who first noticed the march of the cell phone towers through Ravalli County.
Early last year, Land Services Department secretary Patricia Ledford noticed that telecommunication companies were going through her office to obtain the only approval needed for construction of cellular telephone towers in Ravalli County—a physical address.
Within a matter of weeks, about a dozen address requests had come through the county office from wireless telecommunications firms. Ledford, concerned about the implications of unregulated cell phone towers, alerted her bosses at Land Services.
By the time the matter landed on the desks of the county commissioners last spring, angry neighbors were descending on the county courthouse, complaining that neighbors were planning to erect steel towers on their properties, blocking views and generally devaluing surrounding lands.
An investigation into federal cell tower law sank some hearts when it was discovered that Congress had prohibited communities from blocking tower construction. But Congress did give communities one tool—the authority to regulate cell towers; communities may pass ordinances that say where towers may and may not be sited, and can even order them to be disguised to blend in with their surroundings.
County officials set to work last spring designing a cell tower ordinance that would protect the views and provide a measure of public safety. Had officials waited until after last summer’s fires, they might have gone so far as to require cell phone towers to blend in with their surroundings by resembling, say, charred lodgepole pines. But with the fires still some months off in the future, they instead concentrated on appropriate siting, screening and landscaping “in harmony with the character of the surrounding environment.”
After two public hearings, the ordinance was signed into law last September and made almost everyone happy. Everyone but Qwest. The telecommunications giant announced recently that it will challenge the ordinance in both state and federal courts.
Ravalli County civil attorney Jim Mickelson says Qwest claims it is a violation of Montana law for a county to pass individual and specific zoning ordinances in absence of a county-wide growth policy. The federal court argument is based on Federal Communications Commission law which precludes communities from prohibiting the siting of cell towers.
The county will fight the lawsuits, claiming that the issue is one of public safety (cell towers can blow over in strong winds), not zoning. “We don’t call it zoning, but they do,” he says.
The lawsuits may well set a legal precedent in wide-open Montana, where there is plenty of space for cell towers, and plenty of people who like that open space just the way it is: unmarred.