Wayzata City Council approves plans for telecom monopole

195-foot tower will be built at Wayzata West Middle School

Currently, telecommunications equipment is housed on and around the Wayzata water tower in Bell Courts Park. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Jason Jenkins)
Currently, telecommunications equipment is housed on and around the Wayzata water tower in Bell Courts Park. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Jason Jenkins)

Plans for a telecommunications monopole near the outer property line of Wayzata West Middle School have been given the go-ahead by the Wayzata City Council.

The unanimous decision at the council’s March 7 meeting approved the construction of a 195-foot monopole that will house telecom equipment for four cell phone service providers. Leases with the companies, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, bring in around $300,000 in revenue each year for city repairs and maintenance.

Consultant Short Elliot Hendrickson, on behalf of the city, submitted the application for the structure.

Two items were approved as part of the council’s resolution, a conditional use permit and a setback variance.  Based on the proposed height, the tower is required to be at least 195 feet from the adjacent residential properties to the east. The proposed tower would be approximately 171 feet from the nearest residential property line, and therefore required a setback variance.

Currently, the telecom equipment sits about 1,300 feet east of the school site on Wayzata’s water tower in Bell Courts Park, where the city has leased space to telecom companies since 1986. Residents in homes near the site have long argued that the cellphone equipment was “industrial blight” and have pushed for its removal from the public park. In 2014, a petition was presented to the city with 500 signatures in favor of relocating the equipment.

In early 2015, the city worked with a consultant to determine the feasibility of three potential sites for the telecom equipment relocation. A drone flyover was conducted at Wayzata West Middle School, Wayzata Public Works and a site near a frontage road east of Crosby Road. The study aimed to define the conditions of each site and find any line-of-site issues for radio frequency propagation studies, which are used by carriers to determine cell signal strengths for site building and future upgrades.

In the summer of 2015, the city council identified Wayzata West Middle School as the preferred site for the relocation of the equipment because it met cell coverage needs and would not require additional towers in other areas of the community to achieve similar cell coverage currently provided with the water tower site.

“The driver was – can we move the macro site to another location without the need of having two sites? And the middle school was the preference of our four existing tenants,” said Dave Dudinsky, director of public works.

In late 2015, the city adopted a new telecommunications ordinance that established the regulations in the city for all telecom facilities. The Wayzata Public Works Facility and Wayzata West Middle School were identified as the city’s two allowable telecom tower locations.

After testing the soil of various locations at the school site, the city and school district agreed upon a site behind the tennis courts on the northeast portion of the school property.

Access to the tower and ground equipment for both construction and ongoing maintenance would be via Wayzata Boulevard, through the school’s existing parking lot and across a to-be-built gravel access drive running between the school’s baseball field and tennis courts.

Dudinsky said several safety guidelines had been arranged with the school, including requiring the telecom tenants to give the school 24-hour notice before coming to the site. He said the tenants would also not be allowed to access the site, unless it’s an emergency, while kids were being dropped off in the morning or leaving in the afternoon.

Construction of the monopole will take place during the three months of summer when school is out of session, and the future tenants of the tower would be responsible for construction of the ground equipment within an accessory building and adding antennas and associated equipment on the tower. The telecom tenants will also cover part of the cost to construct the monopole, Dudinsky said.

The planning commission reviewed the development application and had a public hearing at two meetings. After initially recommending approval with a 4-1 vote at the Feb. 6 meeting, a 4-3 vote was passed by a full planning commission Feb. 27 requesting denial of the application for the middle school site.

“They were concerned about some of the land use conflicts between the tower itself and the school and also some of the land use impacts on the tower on the residential neighborhood that’s in close proximity,” said Wayzata City Planner Jeff Thomson.

While the decision to remove the equipment from the water tower site was supported by residents, the construction of a monopole tower at the school met with disapproval from several residents who spoke at the council meeting.

Joe Madsen, who lives near the school site, said he was concerned that the relocation would simply shift the issue from one neighborhood to another.

“A 200-foot tower is a significant eyesore to our neighborhood,” Madsen said.

Karen Walker, who also lives near the school, said she was concerned about the safety of kids who use the playfields as well as the potential impact to property values of nearby homes.

“The impact would be devastating to my property and to my retirement income. I ask that you reject this proposal,” Walker said. “It is not a logical solution to the issue.”

Cathy Carlson, who also lives near the school site, offered support for the proposed location.

“Through all of the work and everything that happened, we realized it was the only spot that it could be. … I don’t like changing from neighborhood to neighborhood, but there’s a buffer, there are trees, there are things that buffer it a little bit more than where it is right now,” Carlson said.

Andrew Mullin, a former Wayzata City Council member, also addressed the council to offer his views and called for attention to details. Mullin called for moving the tower’s location 25 feet west to avoid a setback variance, screening for the neighbors and creating an access road along the freeway so that an access road wasn’t needed on school grounds.

“The finer grain details matter,” he said.

Support for the school site was mixed, but ultimately council members voted in favor of moving forward.

“The impetus here was to get it off of the water tower and get it out of the park, because the park was not appropriate for use of a telecom facility. … I’m looking at my role here as representing the community as a whole because really what we need to do is come up with the best location for the whole community and the fact that telecommunications is such an essential service in this day and age and everybody has a cell phone,” Councilmember Steve Tyacke said.

Councilmember Alex Plechash said he saw pros and cons for the proposed plan. And while the site wasn’t ideal, it was a far better location for the telecom equipment than the city’s water tower, he said.

“Voting this thing down presents more problems. We have to do something, and this is the collective wisdom of all the constituents before us,” Plechash said.

As part of Dudinsky’s presentation to the council, he explained that the monopole location that was chosen and studied was done before the city approved its telecommunications ordinance, which requires a setback of at least one foot for each foot in height. This meant that the location’s proximity to the nearest property line (171 feet) required a setback variance for the 195-foot monopole.

“Unfortunately, by the sequence of events, we started the due diligence study and had locked in at that location, and when we started planning for the CUP process and application, I became aware that we were shy. So, that set the stage to require a variance,”  Dudinsky said.

The public works director said plans were adjusted so that the monopole would be designed to have a breakaway point at 100 feet.

“If there was a failure, the way it’s designed, it would fall short of the property line,” Dudinsky said.

Councilmember Dan Koch asked city staff what would be required if the city were to try to move the proposed site 25 feet to the west to avoid needing a setback variance.

Dudinsky said moving the location would require going through the regulatory process again and additional soil boring to test the new location at a total cost of around $20,000 and two to four months.

“It isn’t impossible that it could happen, but we can’t guarantee how the circumstances will lay out,” Dudinsky said, noting that the site could potentially be moved approximately 10 feet west without triggering having to repeat the regulatory process.

Mayor Ken Willcox suggested that city staff verify with the vendors that moving the tower would not negatively affect the tower’s transmission.

“We want it moved as far west as we can without having to go through all the machinations of new approvals and new borings and all the rest of it,” Willcox said.

Councilmember Johanna McCarthy also favored moving forward with the plan as laid out.

“Unless I can see that this would cause a clear and present danger through the trees and onto adjacent property, I’m not going to be in favor of taking on the cost and potentially the ramifications of having to go through the approval processes again, and I’m not convinced that we could do it within $20,000,” McCarthy said.

On a 5-0 vote, the council decided to move forward with the middle school site and a construction bid of $312,000 was awarded to Structural Tower Services.

Construction on the monopole could begin as early as this summer.

Contact Jason Jenkins at jason.jenkins@ecm-inc.com.