City has extremely limited power over cell towers due to 2013 state law

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The Waukesha Plan Commission will soon make an important decision about a proposed 100-foot cell tower that has drawn the ire of a group of local residents, who argue the tower will ruin their neighborhood.

The commission on Jan. 25 will decide whether to approve a conditional use permit for the tower at 915 Magnolia Drive, which will be used by U.S. Cellular. The company has said that keeping the tower in its current location – adjacent to the Waukesha County Expo Center, north of the proposed site – is financially burdensome.

Residents, who are concerned about the aesthetics and potential property value effects that the tower could bring, have assembled a petition urging U.S. Cellular to reconsider the Magnolia Drive location. Last weekend, they staged a protest to draw more public attention to their concerns.

The outcry began in November, when the proposal was first considered by the plan commission.

Church deal

According to planning documents, the 106-foot tower would be built in a lot behind Buen Samaritano United Methodist Church.

U.S. Cellular entered into a contract with the church after it failed to negotiate a renewed lease with the county to keep the tower in its current location near the county's Huber facility, according to a letter from Nika Aswegan, a U.S. Cellular project manager. The current lease is set to expire in October.

The church has since changed its mind about the deal, but remains contractually obligated to it.

The renewed lease offered by the county was three times as expensive as the one U.S. Cellular negotiated with Buen Samaritano, Aswegan wrote, and stricter.

"U.S. Cellular has no other option than to re-locate its site because of the economic burden for it to continue to operate at the Expo Center," she said in the letter.

The tower, according to U.S. Cellular and planning documents, would be disguised as a tree.

Resident concerns

Those arguments do not hold water with a group of nearby residents who say the tower will negatively affect their property values and could pose other problems.

“We’re deeply concerned about what this tower means for our neighborhood,” said Amy Gruetzmacher, a homeowner near the proposed tower site. “This project will crater our property values, ruin green space in the community, and poses a safety hazard as well.”

Neighbors said the tower doesn’t provide enough fall space for surrounding properties, and they are concerned about the noise and aesthetic the tower would create in the neighborhood.

Tough law

One important element is the debate involves a state law that works against such protests.

The city, as a result of a 2013 state law, has virtually no power to control where cell towers are built, and resident concerns might not be sufficient to merit a denial of a conditional use permit.

RELATED: Summary of state law concerning cell towers

Under those state regulations, which the city adopted July 2014, municipalities cannot deny or regulate wireless tower permits for aesthetic reasons, nor can they limit the number of towers, their proximity to one another or the height of towers to under 200 feet.

Alderman Joe Pieper, who represents the district where the new tower would be built and has helped organize against it, opposed those modifications to the city's zoning code when they were brought to the council.

"The state Legislature passed a law that really kind of stinks, because it removes any level of local control," he said at the time.

Company's response

In response to the outcry, U.S. Cellular released a statement saying it was continuing to work with the county on a new lease and looked forward to additional dialog on the issue.

"We are continuing negotiations with Waukesha County officials for a lease extension of our current tower near the Huber Facility," the company said. "These negotiations include several aspects of the lease agreement, such as (electromagnetic fields and radio frequencies) indemnification language, rent, maintenance and insurance. We are hopeful that we can keep our presence at the current site, and we will, provided we can reach agreement with the county on reasonable terms.

"We need to ensure that we can continue to provide network service to our customers in the area, so these ongoing negotiations have resulted in us looking for a new tower site location. After thorough research into several potential sites for relocating this tower, the location at Buen Samaritano United Methodist Church was determined to provide the best wireless service for our customers.

"We welcome further dialogue around this, and we look forward to having additional conversations with local Waukesha leaders and residents.​"

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