Olympia neighborhoods sought for cell towers

AT&T wants to change a city ordinance with the intention of building more cell towers in Olympia.

In January, an attorney for the company requested a code amendment regarding wireless communication facilities.

AT&T is asking the city to loosen zoning restrictions and allow wireless facilities at any public or city-owned property. Drafted in 2006, the current city code prohibits such structures in historic districts.

Another request calls for a standard building permit for future wireless facilities instead of a conditional use permit, which requires a public hearing process. AT&T also wants to make city code more consistent with federal and state exemptions for wireless facilities.

AT&T has said it is interested in four new cell tower sites in Olympia, including a water tower at Lincoln Elementary School’s Stevens Field, Providence St. Peter Hospital, and undetermined locations in the Eastside and Northeast neighborhoods.

The issue has galvanized several neighborhood leaders in Olympia who want to minimize the impact of cell towers near residential areas.

The Coalition of Neighborhood Associations recently formed a wireless subcommittee that met for the first time Wednesday. The coalition hopes to assist AT&T and the city in identifying potential sites for towers.

“This has opened up an important conversation that we were going to have anyway,” said Peter Guttchen, who leads the subcommittee. “Our interest is to have this be a civil process.”

Demand for wireless service continues to grow nationwide. In 2013, about 43 percent of U.S. households were using only wireless telephone services, according to a report by USTelecom. In 2003, only 5 percent of U.S. households were wireless-only.

“Everybody understands the infrastructure needs to grow because demand is growing,” said Phil Schulte, vice chairman of the coalition. “You can’t have wireless without towers. But how we do towers and where we do towers is where I think there can be some reasoned dialogue and cooperation.”

With its request to change city code, AT&T has triggered a public process. The next step is for city staff to present a recommendation to the planning commission. A public hearing would follow, and eventually a revised ordinance could go before the Olympia City Council.

A spokeswoman told The Olympian in December that AT&T is pursuing five to seven potential cell tower sites in Thurston County. In November, the company dropped plans for a tower at Roosevelt Elementary School after the Northeast Neighborhood Association raised concerns.

The city already leases six public sites to wireless carriers, bringing in $258,712 in revenue in 2013. Most of these sites are water tanks or reservoirs.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869