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A Towering Annoyance
By Leif Enger
December 1, 1999
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Communication towers, those blinking, guy-wired harbingers of car phones, have sprouted at the rate of 5,000 a year nationwide for the past decade. Industry watchers say another 100,000 of the structures could go up by 2010. While digital phones mean improved service, the towers themselves, often topped by flashing strobe lights, are widely abhorred as a blight on the landscape. In the Brainerd lakes area, county officials are trying to bring them under control.

In a meeting that lasted three-and-a-half hours, no one stood to speak in favor of communication towers, and, in fact, no representative of a digital telephone company was present.
THE DIGITAL PHONE REVOLUTION is to blame; a digital tower can't throw voices as far as a cellular one, so it takes more towers to accommodate growing phone use. So last summer, with towers going up fast, and complaints pouring in even faster, Crow Wing County passed a tower moratorium to buy time to write a tower ordinance. At a public hearing, James Rundberg, who lives on a Mission Township lake, repeatedly popped a camera flash while imploring the planning commission to set the strictest possible rules.
Rundberg: What we have looking at us now, every single day, is this going off almost every second when we look to the north. And now we're looking at a reflection on the ice every hour of the day.
Federal guidelines prohibit counties from banning digital-communication towers outright, but counties can and do craft rules to diminish annoyance. The ordinance now being drafted in Crow Wing would reduce lighting and force companies to share towers when possible. State Representative Kris Hasskamp, carrying with her a thick file labeled "Tower Problem", wants to see counties given more control over who builds what, and how it looks.
Hasskamp: We're a tourist destination in Crow Wing County, and I think having the towers in the middle of our lake country has a drastic and direct impact on our tourism and our economy, and I think it'll also have an impact on our property values.
Hasskamp said she's researching what can be done at the state level to limit the eye-stabbing strobes that bring the most complaints. An irony is that thousands of the very tourists no one wants to offend are talking on car phones all the way to the lake. Other users are the business travelers passing through to points beyond, who now expect their phone will stay loud and clear all the way to their destination. Another Mission Township resident with a view of a tower is Burma Brekke, who suggests it's not the locals who crave digital convenience.
Brekke: Blinking, blinking blinking blinking! It's just like when you chip your tooth. You ever chip your tooth? And your tongue goes there and goes there and goes there until your tongue is raw. And that's just exactly what that light does, it's mesmerizing.
Others have complained the strobes bring on headaches or anxiety. The question of tower-related health hazards is still under study, at least as regards humans; there's no question at all they are hard on songbirds. DNR non-game specialist Pam Perry read from studies saying more than four million birds are killed annually in North America in tower collisions.
Perry: For some reason, birds become attracted to towers with pilot-warning lights, required for all towers under 200 feet in height. The confused birds mill around the towers, colliding with guy wires, the tower itself, other birds, or the ground.
In a meeting that lasted three-and-a-half hours, no one stood to speak in favor of communication towers, and, in fact, no representative of a digital telephone company was present. One resident leaving the hearing said, "They didn't have to be: no one can stand the towers, but everyone knows they're coming."