Opponents of 150-foot radio towers proposed by Canadian station KRPI 1550 AM had friends in high places.
Three Canadian government officials were scheduled to speak at a hearing next week in front of the Whatcom County hearing examiner, including Kerry-Lynne Findley, a member of parliament.
“It is an international incident, it really is,” said Steve Wolff of Point Roberts, a member of the Stop the Radio Towers Cross Border Coalition. The group of Point Roberts and Tsawwassen, B.C. residents filed a pre-hearing motion asking the county to deny a conditional-use permit to build the five towers near the Canadian border. KRPI broadcasts in Punjabi to a Canadian audience.
The conditional-use permit triggered the hearing, which was scheduled to run for five days at least. Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink canceled the hearing after saying he would grant the coalition’s request. Bobbink said in a memo that he would deny the permit because the towers were too tall — 150 feet, which would be much higher than Point Roberts’ 45-foot limit.
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Bobbink’s written ruling is expected next week.
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, also got involved. She sent a letter to Bobbink just last week, on Oct. 14, to warn of problems the towers might cause for the border crossing.
“While Point Roberts is a small community, the port of entry ... is the 12th busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing of the 88 along the entire northern border,” DelBene wrote.
“Customs and Border Protection ... had undertaken initial studies and made an initial determination that ‘the power of the site and its location has the significant potential to interfere with communications,’” she added.
Residents of Point Roberts and the larger cross-border city of Tsawwassen were worried, too, about the “blanket interference” radio towers are known to cause. It had been an issue in Ferndale, where KRPI’s towers currently stand.
Strange voices would come over the loudspeakers at Pioneer Park after the Ferndale towers went live, Mayor Gary Jensen said last week.
“We used to get terrible complaints,” Jensen said, “and then (the radio station) did more filters” to reduce interference.
“It still causes problems for people near that area, but not as much as at first,” he said.
Newer televisions and phones aren’t affected, Jensen added.
Point Roberts and Tsawwassen residents were also concerned about possible ill health effects, although medical science hadn’t established a link between radio waves and disease.
Wolff, an engineer, put it this way: People are concerned about holding a half-watt cell phone to their heads. The 50,000-watt towers, because they would be arranged to direct their signal northward, effectively have a power of 100,000 watts in that direction. Imagine, Wolff said, getting this level of power 24-7, for a lifetime.
The Federal Communications Commission requires that people stay less than five meters, or 16.4 feet, from an individual tower with this amount of power.
The sort of study needed to show a radio tower-disease link would be a long-term study, said coalition member John Lesow of Point Roberts. But radio towers that powerful aren’t allowed near populated areas. That’s what had Tsawwassen residents so incensed — the FCC approved the tower site without considering the population of the town just beyond the U.S. border, which is more than 20,000.
“They don’t have empirical studies because there are none, because of the siting requirements,” Lesow said. “The Tsawwassen people have just been put into a petri dish.”
Lesow made that statement on Thursday, Oct. 16, five days before the hearing examiner said he would deny the permit. Point Roberts residents were concerned their small community couldn’t fight against the much larger powers that had already approved the tower, including the FCC. (In a post on the NWCitizen blog, Lesow characterized the conflict as “David vs. Goliath.”) The station was arguing that federal rules pre-empted county rules in this case.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I got the call” telling him of the hearing examiner’s decision, Lesow said on Tuesday, Oct. 21, “but I didn’t think it was by any means a long shot. … That really puts the Point Roberts character plan and county zoning on stronger footing. I don’t like to get pushed around or pre-empted by anybody.”
DelBene issued a statement on Wednesday, Oct. 22, commenting on Bobbink’s decision:
“Point Roberts citizens’ voices were heard, and this is the right decision by the hearing examiner,” DelBene said. “The proposed towers could negatively impact the quality of life for residents in this community, and I will continue working to make sure this project does not move forward.”
An attorney for KRPI said the station will appeal. The next level of hearing is before the County Council.