Council delays decision on North Riverside cell phone tower

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WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"It's the way we work.  So now it's back in their lap and that'll be fine.  We'll do what we can for it," said Francene Sharp, who showed up at Tuesday's Wichita City Council meeting with a "No Tower" sign.

The fight over whether a cell tower can go up on private property in the North Riverside neighborhood will start all over again.  The city council sent it back to the planning committee for more study, something neighbors who oppose the plan  say is a mixed blessing.

"We have spent so much time and so much research and stress," said Claire Willenberg, who's been leading the fight against the cell tower.  "We were hoping it would be over.  But the opportunity to present more information and have it be heard is in a way a win."

They came to Tuesday's city council meeting prepared for a final vote, knowing the time for speaking was over but finding a way to still have their say.
Francene Sharp held her "No Tower" sign, the size of a standard sheet of paper, on her lap.

"We're not allowed to say anything, so I just very quietly held this up in front of me," she said.  "And I got a few smiles from them.  So that's nice.  They knew we were there."

They've been fighting the plan to put an 80-foot tall cell phone tower at the corner of 18th and Woodland, for months now.  More than 81% of the neighborhood is against the plan saying they're concerned about everything from their health to their property values.  They say trying to get their point across has been tough.

"I think we were frustrated because, as uninitiated people to city process, it was not as transparent as it might be," Willenberg said.

So, while Tuesday's vote to send the issue back to the planning board isn't the win they'd hoped for, it does allow them to keep fighting.

"Regroup and see if we can present a better case at MAPC," said Willenberg about their plans for the next step.

"We'll just keep fighting for all the other neighbors that can't make these meetings because they're busy working," said Sharp.

KAKE News asked the representative of the developer trying to build the tower, but he would not comment.  

When the proposal comes back to the city council six of the seven council members will have to approve it for the tower to go up.  But does it matter what they think?  Council members are increasingly confused over what say they have in this case.

"It's a moving target," said Mayor Jeff Longwell.  "So it's like kicking a field goal with the field goal posts constantly  moving left and right."

That's because several of the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) new rules limiting the amount of control cities have over the permitting of cell phone towers are now tied up in lawsuits, the results of which could overturn the rules, or not.  Then, there's a state law with competing interpretations.

"The general concept is that folks can put cell towers in public right of ways so long as certain conditions are met.  And in those conditions the city can't discriminate against one company or another.  It's called neutrality," explained Rep. John Carmichael, (D) Wichita.

The North Riverside neighborhood is in Carmichael's district.  He also sits on the Kansas House Utilities Committee that handles laws governing cell towers.  He says current law is unclear on whether the same restrictions apply to private property and folks are interpreting it in a way that benefits them.

"When they go to Topeka they say the city has the authority to do this," he said.  "When they arrive in front of the city council they say, 'No, it's hands off.'" 

"There's some that don't want us to have any control over what can go in or out of neighborhoods," said Longwell.  "And that's unfortunate because at the end of the day we're here to represent our constituents."