Sunset Hills panel recommends denial of telecommunications tower

Board of Aldermen considers CUP to erect 190-foot tower

By Mike Anthony

The Sunset Hills Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously last week to recommend denial of a conditional-use permit to construct a 190-foot telecommunications tower proposed as part of St. Louis County’s new emergency communications network.

The request for the telecommunications tower at 4580 S. Lindbergh Blvd. was presented Dec. 5 to the Planning and Zoning Commission by David Barney, executive director of the St. Louis County Emergency Communications Commission, and Russell Been, of Cellective Solutions. Planning and Zoning Commission member Jeff Sanders was absent.

The Board of Aldermen was scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the CUP request Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.

Barney told the Planning and Zoning Commission the proposed 190-foot tower at the South County Health Center would be one of 25 throughout the county as “part of the new public safety network that will serve all fire departments and all police departments within St. Louis County, as well as local government agencies.”

County voters overwhelmingly approved a one-tenth of a cent sales tax in November 2009 to fund the new emergency communications network.

“The county and municipalities are all under a federal mandate to modernize their individual radio systems. The two-way radio systems that have been in use for so many years are old …,” Barney said. “There is difficulty talking to one another, and as you know, we have so many agencies, so many municipalities and so many first responders that they have difficulty talking to one another, although one incident may bring in a dozen agencies.

“We do not have what is called interoperability that today exists in many of the larger urban areas in the United States … The Federal Communications Commission has issued a mandate that radio owners and operators such as Sunset Hills, such as the county, such as Webster Groves, Kirkwood, whoever else, update their radios systems — not to talk to one another, but to operate in a more efficient fashion. It did not make sense for the cities to update their old radio systems and still be an island unto themselves …”

Been told the commission roughly 15 sites were considered before selecting the site on the southeast corner of the parking lot at the South County Health Center.

Besides the 190-foot-tall tower, the proposal would include a 12-foot-by-24-foot prefab building with a generator and an above-ground propane tank.

Some commission members questioned Been about the 1,200-foot-tall Fox 2 TV towers near Lindbergh High School.

“We actually did approach the television station about locating on a tower. However, it just didn’t work financially for what they were asking …,” he said. “We’ve looked at probably 15 different sites and vetted at least 15 different sites till we finally settled on this one … The way the system is designed, we have a limited search ring. Each site is dependent on the location of each adjacent site …”

In response to questions from commission member Kevin Studer, Been said, “… The site at the television station provides the same coverage as the site at the health center. So economically and being a responsible government agency to our constituents, we are putting forth the lowest-cost option without sacrificing quality.”

Commission member Terry Beiter also asked about using the existing TV towers.

“… They wanted to do it at an outrageous expense. We had extensive meetings with Fox 2 and we met several times on site,” Been said. “We met several times at their offices in Maryland Heights and just could not get them to a realistic, you know, to come to a realistic agreement between the county and Fox 2.”

Residents addressing the commission objected to the proposed location of the tower, calling it an “eyesore” and voicing concerns about the possible health risks of microwave transmissions, the above-ground propane tank and the impact on property values.

Resident and business owner Daryl Oberkfell said, “… This is going to be an eyesore for the rest of our lives. It’s never going away. It will be there when we’re all dead, but it’s going to be there. And I kind of had the bad feeling when I got this card (notification of the public hearing) in the mail over Thanksgiving, that this was being jammed down somebody’s throat …

“I don’t trust St. Louis County. I don’t like the way they’re going about it. I don’t like the choice of where it is …,” he said.

Cathy Ely of Sappington Road said, “… My house is not directly behind the health center. However, it would have a huge impact by the tower. (It also would impact) several of my neighbors and I have their names. They said, ‘Do you need petitions from us?’ I find it convenient that there’s no picture from our homes what the tower would look like — just from the businesses.

“There is, out of our front door, the TV tower. So we’ve been looking at that for years … I grew up with it. I have been at this address for 48 years … I went home tonight, stood at my kitchen window and saw this gorgeous, aesthetic sunset that would now be blocked by a tower …”

Ely also contended the tower would negatively impact the value of her home and her neighbors’ homes.

Before the commission voted to recommend denial of the CUP request, Chairman Nick Dragan said, “… Certainly, we all want to see better emergency response, but I would love to see the differentials in the numbers when it comes to utilizing a 1,200-foot tower, which I think would be far superior — I’m not an engineer — to a 190-foot tower that is going to adversely affect both commercial and residential …”

In a Dec. 9 email to the Board of Aldermen, Mayor Bill Nolan wrote that he spoke with Florissant Police Chief William Karabas, who serves as chairman of the Emergency Communications Commission.

Karabas told Nolan the tower at the health center would cost roughly $400,000 to $500,000, including the ancillary structures, while Fox 2 wants to charge $5,000 per month for the use of its tower. The prefab building still would have to be erected and other costs associated with using the TV tower would total $200,000 or more.

In his email, Nolan compared the cost of building the tower at the proposed location to using the Fox 2 location, noting the rental cost would be $60,000 per year along with the $200,000 initial cost.

“As I see it … we are not being fiscally responsible with our tax dollars to go to Fox 2. In five years, we will have spent the same amount and from that point forward be lining the pockets of Fox with our tax dollars,” the mayor wrote.

In addition, Karabas told Nolan residents’ concerns would be addressed, including moving the tower to the northeast corner of the site, using natural gas to eliminate the propane tank and building “a tilt-up concrete wall to enclose the base of the tower.” Landscaping also would be added.