Government

Bill would overrule local control on NE Iowa communication tower denial

The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Proposed legislation could wrest local control away from the state’s most northeastern county to force the construction of what local officials have deemed an unsightly communications tower.

Companion bills in the Iowa Statehouse essentially would overrule the Allamakee County Board of Adjustment, which this year voted against an application for an AT&T communications tower near New Albin, where Iowa and Minnesota meet along the Mississippi River.

The local board voted against the tower for obstructing bluff views of the scenic Mississippi River. But some state officials argue the structure is needed to complete a statewide emergency communications network.

Lucas Beenken, public policy specialist with the Iowa State Association of Counties, described the bill as an attack on the county’s ability to self govern.

“It’s our opinion that it’s just bad public policy to change the law when you couldn’t get approval for siting at the local level,” Beenken said.

Bill manager Rep. Tom Jeneary, R-Le Mars, said the bill prohibits local authorities from denying the application, which is part of a nationwide public safety broadband network called FirstNet.

“This bill comes about after the attack by terrorists on 9/11 when first responders could not communicate over existing cellphone towers. Since then, the country has embarked on the development of the first responder network,” he said. “This bill is necessary to ensure that Iowa meets its FirstNet build-out goals of coverage for 99 percent of the population and 98 percent of the geographical areas.”

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As written, the bill would apply to counties with fewer than 15,000 residents. Beenken said that applies to 47 Iowa counties.

The bill — which on Monday was approved 74-20 in the House — would sunset two years after it goes into effect.

“You’re taking away local decision-making for two years for nearly half the counties in the state,” Beenken said.

Allamakee Zoning Director Tom Blake said the board of adjustment last year voted against an application for a communications tower near New Albin.

AT&T, through its contractor Northeast Iowa Telephone Co., applied for a construction permit for the tower for FirstNet, a nationwide high-speed wireless broadband network for first responders and public safety professionals.

However, the tower received pushback from members of the community who worried it would block the area’s scenic view.

Blake said the board deemed the tower “obnoxious or offensive,” so it failed — in a 2-3 vote — to receive special exception approval.

Rather than appeal the decision, which is common, Blake said the next he heard about the matter was when the bills were filed.

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“We haven’t run into anything like this before,” he said. “The company should exhaust their legal remedies for the system or method that is in place to handle this. They have chosen not to do that.”

Rep. Tim Kacena, D-Sioux City, is a retired firefighter and said he would support the bill, but added that he does have some problems with how it came about.

“This is an important tower that needs to be built, but at the same time understand that this decision to build this tower affects 48 other counties,” he said. “This is a local control issue that I think we should all be aware of. I hope we do not have to go around the courts on future bills.”

The Allamakee County Board of Supervisors last month sent a letter to the Iowa House of Representatives in response to the bill.

The letter notes that the tower was denied due to its proximity to a residence and the “obnoxious or offensive” clause provided in county rules.

“The bill, as written, will usurp local control of the placement of structures such as cellular or other communication towers. It will allow AT&T to place towers in locations that may negatively impact surrounding land uses and natural resources,” the board notes in the letter.

Gazette reporter James Lynch contributed to this report.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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