Verizon cell towers one step closer to calling Breckenridge downtown | SummitDaily.com

Verizon cell towers one step closer to calling Breckenridge downtown

Breckenridge planning commissioners voted 5-2 to support a contentious proposal allowing Verizon Wireless to build a cluster of antennas inside the town's National Historic District.

The commissioners spent over three hours during Tuesday's public hearing weighing Verizon's application for a building permit as they listened to testimony offered by town staff, company representatives, an independent third party and a handful of local residents opposed to the project.

The hearing was thrice delayed, but with all seven planning commissioners in attendance, more than 150 pages in the meeting agenda packet devoted to Verizon's proposal and the lineup of experts ready to offer evidence and testimony, the proceedings finally took their course.

One point of clarification, town staff noted early on in hearing that the proposed wireless communications facility, if approved, would go up at 305 S. Ridge St., inside the Breckenridge National Historic District and town's conservation district, but not the local historic district.

The building that would support the new facility is a non-historic, three-story structure that stands 42 feet tall and houses the town's post office, a couple restaurants and a 21-space parking garage. The antennas would be grouped together on the building's flat roof, screened by an enclosure made to look like part of the existing building.

"Just so we're all on the same page, I want to let you know we're going to follow the planning commission's rules of procedure," said commission chair Christie Mathews-Leidal, who added she would shut anyone down who went outside the scope of what commissioners could consider.

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"I want to remind everybody in the room that, by federal law, we are prohibited from considering radio frequency emissions, radiations or other health issues associated with wireless communication facilities," she explained. "That issue is solely governed by the federal government … The only thing the commission can do is to require compliance with the applicable federal laws."

With that in mind, the majority of discussions remained focused on two major points of contention: If the proposed facility would close "an existing gap" in service or coverage and the idea there were no other feasible alternatives to close that gap.

At the heart of the debate stood Breckenridge's Policy 50, a lengthy set of town-approved guidelines adopted in the summer of 2016 dictating how applications for new wireless facilities should be handled locally.

Federal guidelines hem in how local governments can address applications for wireless facilities, preventing towns like Breckenridge from considering not just potential adverse health effects but other aspects of the proposal, such as how a wireless facility could affect nearby property values.

While town officials crafted Policy 50 in line with federal rules, provisions were added giving the town some jurisdiction over where these facilities should be located, such as seeking to cluster them together when possible and keeping them out of the most protected places in town, unless absolutely necessary.

At the same time, Policy 50 aims to keep wireless facilities out of the historic district, another caveat forbids two facilities from being within 1,500 feet of each other, another provision that's designed to keep their numbers down.

According to town staff and commissioners, Verizon's application was the first time a proposed wireless facility has been reviewed against Policy 50, which does contain some "adjustments" or exemptions for companies that can demonstrate there's a gap in their coverage, and no other feasible alternative exists for closing that gap.

According to Verizon, the wireless facility currently on top of The Village Hotel — known as the "Snowberry site" — has already hit capacity during peak times, and there's no other way to improve coverage other than building another facility on the post office building. Because Verizon already has equipment at the Snowberry site, company reps said it would do little good to locate another one there, even though the post office is only about 1,110 feet away from the Snowberry site, roughly 400 feet shy of the 1,500-foot barrier radius.

Opponents contended Verizon might have shown the new facility would improve coverage, but they claimed the company did not adequately display a gap in service to warrant a wireless communications facility inside one of the most sensitive and protected places in town. The same opponents also suggested that Verizon stopped short of exhausting all other available alternatives before deciding the post office was the only way to improve service.

Most basically, the contended Policy 50 "makes the historic district the location of last resort," and asked the commissioners to think of it "as a legal wall around the historic district" impenetrable unless certain requirements are met.

Basing their decision on the intent of Policy 50, town staff recommended the planning commission support Verizon's application. The town had also hired Vantage Point Solutions to conduct an independent third-party review of the application, and a representative of the firm said she couldn't discredit Verizon's application and, like town staff, also recommended commission approval.

That wasn't enough for commissioners Mike Giller and Steve Gerard, who voted against Verizon's proposal. However, they were the minority.

Verizon's proposal now goes to Breckenridge Town Council, which meets next Tuesday and could either let the planning commission's decision stand or call up Verizon's application and hold a new hearing for the project.