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A new, taller cell phone tower disguised as an elm tree may soon be erected behind the main fire station. Planned and presented more than a year ago, the Verizon cell tower would go in the area formerly used for recycling. A revised proposal was considered by the Corrales Planning and Zoning Commission at its June 16 meeting. Results of the commission’s decision could not be included in this issue. The existing 70-foot tall flag pole cell tower in front of the fire station would be removed and replaced by the 85-foot tower east of the station. With exceptions, Corrales has a height restriction of 26 feet. Some villagers had filed objections to the proposed higher cell tower, but the Village recently lost in its bid to deny the cell tower request on the former Sandia View Academy property. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXX No.4 April 10, 2021 “Cell Tower Erected Next to Corrales Main Canal.”)

A few near neighbors complained a year ago when the new tower at the fire station was proposed, and some have done so in recent weeks as the project came back to the P&Z commission. But preliminary approvals have been rolling in. A lease agreement was signed and finalized between the Village of Corrales and Crown Atlantic Company in April 2021 for the area behind the firs station that would be used. Village Administrator Ron Curry signed the lease agreement. The application submitted to P&Z is for Site Development Plan SDP 21-03, Crown Castle, Replacement Cell Tower at Fire Station No.1, 4920 Corrales Road. It seeks site development plan approval “to remove the existing 70-foot ‘flagpole’ style cell tower at 4920 Corrales Road (in front of Fire Station No.1) and replace it and relocate with an 85 foot ‘tree’ style cell tower behind the fire station building on the south side of the property. This property is zoned M for Municipal Use.”

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The submission further advises, “ Site Development Plan applications specific to Wireless Facilities are governed by Article VI. Telecommunications Facilities, which begins in Village Code at Section 18-201. Wireless telecommunications facilities are a permissive use on municipal properties, per Section 18-207. “Originally, this application was to have been heard end of 2019 or early 2020, but COVID-19 and other considerations pushed it forward. While most documents provided by the applicant did not need revision, the Village requested an updated NIER (radio-frequency report) and review of the engineering (structural report), both of which were done. A town hall meeting was held in July 2019 whereby Crown Castle staff, including their engineer, flew out to Corrales and met with members of the public to answer questions. Certified letters were sent to all within 300 feet of the proposed tower at that time, and approximately 20 neighbors did attend. The Village did not ask Crown Castle to repeat the town hall.”

The submission pointed out that, as part of the lease agreement, Fire Chief Anthony Martinez made several requests, to which the applicant agreed. These include to replace a portion of the crumbling wall between the Fire Station and Sherrod Court on the south side; erect a 35-foot flagpole; replace an existing chain-link gate with an industrial or commercial grade security metal gate; move a shed on the Fire Department property; and provide a five-foot telecommunications antenna on top of the new 85-foot tower behind the fire station.

P&Z Administrator Laurie Stout said the new tower would be 15 feet taller than the one in front of the fire station, including the Fire Department’s five-foot antenna. She included the following in her summary for the commission. She said the application must include “a scenic and landscaping plan showing the appearance of the proposed wireless telecommunications facility from all streets, roads and recreational trails within one-half mile of the property where located and from all sites, buildings, existing structures, cultural resources or other objects identified in the cultural resources report, and including a landscaping plan or other plan showing how the visual effect of the proposed wireless telecommunications facility will be mitigated.” That meant production of full-color “before and after” renderings “showing the visual impact of the proposed tree-style cell tower from five different vantage points. The Village requested that Crown Castle utilize the ‘stealth’ technology called for in Village Code Section 18-208 (b) (3), i.e. the ‘tree’ style, to better blend in with the surroundings. Although jokes have been made because it is called an ‘elm’ style, the proposed cell tower is not a tree and in no way resembles the Chinese elm forbidden in the Village! There are elm varieties, such as the Frontier Elm, that are allowed.”

Stout explained that the existing cell tower that was “permitted and built in 1999, is a 70-foot tall flagpole with antennas enclosed in a canister at the top. Crown Castle is requesting permission to construct a new 85-foot pole disguised as an elm tree as a replacement for the flagpole to allow for improved Verizon Wireless signal coverage, greater equipment flexibility to deploy advanced wireless technologies, and the accommodation of additional users to increase service offerings within the Village. Due to its narrow profile, the existing flagpole cannot accommodate the latest antenna and radio equipment which are required by today’s wireless networks without modifications which would compromise its appearance as a flagpole. The new, taller elm tree will not only permit the installation of advanced technologies and equipment, it will also allow for additional users to utilize the same facility to offer their services within the Village.”

She further explained that “The reason why the existing 70’ flagpole facility is not suitable for either expansion or co-location is due to its narrow profile. The addition of additional antennas or even replacement of existing antennas on the existing flag pole is extremely limited since it is only 20 inches in diameter. The latest wireless antennas designed to utilize new frequencies licensed by the FCC are much wider and deeper than the original antennas in use when the facility was designed in 1999. Advanced broadband technologies also require radios to be installed adjacent to the antennas instead of on the ground. Finally, the multiple frequency bands used generally require multiple antennas per sector. Installing all of the necessary equipment on the existing flag pole would require structural modifications to make it significantly wider which would compromise the camouflage design of the flag pole.

“In addition, the existing pole is not designed to accommodate additional wireless providers. Any additional provider would have to mount its antennas and radios externally, further degrading the facility’s aesthetic. Given that this facility is located directly off of Corrales Road, it would be impossible to comply with the aesthetic standards required in Village code. As such, co-location is not feasible on the existing structure. And, she said, “Placing the new facility, while 15 feet taller, in the back half of the property will dramatically decrease its profile and visibility from the frontage, since it will be largely screened by the existing fire station, water tank and other nearby structures. In addition, the elm tree design will more readily blend in in those spots where it is visible above the tree line.”

Stout said “The elm tree design was specifically chosen to blend in with the character of the Corrales Road scenic byway. Elms are a common, if not traditional, landscaping tree in the North Valley. As demonstrated in the accompanying photo simulations, from a distance the protruding visible portion of the antenna structure will blend into the tree line and not readily stand out as a wireless facility.” The long-delayed AT&T cell tower at the west end of Academy Drive was finally erected this spring. The tall, thick, white tower went up in late March, but initially lacked antenna installations. But it was still a shock to villagers whose homes face east toward the Sandia Mountains. The tower is next to the old Academy Furniture Store at the rear of the Sandia View Academy property, and is most visible from the entrance to the Camino de la Tierra Subdivision.

Residents’ calls to the Corrales Planning and Zoning Office began almost immediately, protesting the obvious violation of the Village’s height restrictions. But most were probably unaware that Village officials fought that battle and lost in federal court. In 2019, Village officials acquiesced to AT&T Mobility’s demand that it be allowed to erect a 65-foot cell phone tower at the west end of Academy Drive, near Loma Larga. The Village’s decision to refrain from blocking the telecommunications tower came after its law firm advised in an August 9, 2020 memo that no obstacles be placed on AT&T’s intent to move ahead with construction.

The Village’s lawyers had warned that the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act is weighted heavily in favor of telecommunications companies seeking to provide better and better coverage. A big obstacle here was that the Village had permitted other cell towers of the same height, including on its own municipal property… one of which was for AT&T. Plans for a cell phone tower on the old Academy Furniture property were first rejected by the Corrales Planning and Zoning Commission in April 2013. AT&T appealed that rejection to the Village Council which upheld the P&Z ruling. From there, it was off to courtrooms.

(See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXII, No.7, May 25, 2013 “Sandia View Cell Tower Appeal.”)

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