SEQUIM — Disguising a radio-cellphone tower as a 150-foot Douglas fir is just one route the wireless industry takes these days to mollify concerns over the steel poles sticking out in verdant treescapes, the consultant for an ongoing Sequim-area project said last week.
Bryon Gunnerson of Sequim is the man charged with ushering Radio Pacific Inc.’s disputed 15-story facility through a Clallam County permitting process that encourages such artifice as conifer-covered radio-cellphone towers.
The tower, also known as a wireless communication facility, or WCF under county code parlance, would be among the thousands of cell towers across the U.S. that are disguised as palm trees in California and boulders in Sandy, Utah, Gunnerson said last week.
They squat as nonfunctioning, fake grain elevators across the Midwest.
They are planted as look-alike Saguaro cactuses that stand beside their living spiny cousins in the Southwest, and rise toward the sky across the U.S. as steeples and crosses.
“About 20 percent of all cell tower sites that are built are disguised or camouflaged,” Gunnerson, a former T-Mobile vice president, said last week.
Camouflaging the tower as a 15-story tree has done little to palliate the concerns of critics who incorporated as Dungeness Heights Homeowners (DHH) to fight the project on judicial terrain.
DHH filed a land-use petition last spring in Clallam County Superior Court to block the project at 766 Brigadoon Blvd., a newly created address at 686 Brigadoon on a forested, partially sloped ridge.
Judge Erik Rohrer heard arguments on the case Tuesday before deciding to issue a decision in early 2017.
Designing and building the faux fir accounts for at least $200,000 of the $500,000 project, Gunnerson said.
It would be built down a more than 400-foot driveway and road and shielded by an 8-foot fence with green and brown privacy slats.
At 150 feet, the camouflaged tower would stick up about 60-70 feet above the immediately surrounding 80-foot to 100-foot tree ceiling but should feel right at home standing among real trees, Gunnerson said Friday.
“I think it’s going to look pretty real after all is said and done,” he said.
“You look around a forested area and you find pines that stick up above the canopy of the forest all the time.”
The mock tree will consist of a hollow steel trunk with composite plastic and fiberglass branches that “will create the look and feel of a branch,” Gunnerson said.
The tree needles are a flexible polyvinyl-like material that are manufactured to stay green over time.
Spectral images of the tree colors in the surrounding area were taken and matched to what was available from the tree’s manufacturer, he said.
The ersatz firs have a 50-year lifespan, Gunnerson added.
“Depending on the weathering of the branches, you replace a branch at a time.”
DHH’s petition was filed against Radio Pacific Inc., which owns KONP radio in Port Angeles and would broadcast a new station from the tower, and T-Mobile, which project opponent and retired real estate agent Diane Hood of Sequim said last week is no longer listed as a respondent.
She said Friday that DHH’s objections are myriad and include a rejection of the faux fir as a constructive measure that fails to fully address the group’s concerns.
Hood said the tower also would cut into property values, emit harmful non-ionizing, nonthermal radiation, and would be built too close to surrounding property owners.
And she claimed Friday that its fabricated branches would actually protrude close to 100 feet above the surrounding trees.
Hood said the height anomaly was a factor in necessitating the variance that Clallam County Hearing Examiner William Payne approved, along with a conditional use permit, on March 3 — the favorable nod that DHH is challenging.
Radio Pacific’s 100-foot tower — the maximum height allowed under the county code — had already been approved by the county before Payne approved construction of an additional 50 feet.
Hood said that the county Department of Community Development report on the project said that existing trees near the tower are 67 feet shorter than Gunnerson’s estimate.
Gunnerson responded Friday that his measurements were drawn from an arborist’s study of the area.
Hood also contended that birds would be harmed by the tower’s antennae, whether hidden or not.
She asserted that millions of birds die every year in collisions with such towers.
“It will still have radio attachments and cell-tower attachments,” Hood said.
“These will be sticking out all over.”
Gunnerson said the county Department of Community Development would closely monitor the project as the tree goes up.
“As we are configuring and putting it together, they have the ability to say we want this limb here and this limb there,” he said.
“They can make the limbs disparate as opposed to uniform to blend in to any limb configurations you find at the location.”
Apart from Rohrer’s decision, DHH has asked the Federal Communications Commission to intervene by having the project reviewed in an environmental assessment.
The county has recognized the efficacy of disguising cellphone towers, incorporating fakery in the county code as an alternative to building bare towers.
Provisions provide for construction of new WCF facilities between the eastern county boundary and the Elwha River, and north of U.S. Highway 101.
Applicants must use technology other than that which would require building a support tower or must “construct any new support tower using camouflage technology (i.e., camouflaging a tower to resemble a conifer),” according to the code.
The goal was to make radio-cell towers fit natural surroundings, county Planning Manager Steve Gray said last week.
“It’s in the code to make it fit in better than the artificial lattice structures that were historically put up.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].