Cellphone tower battle spurs lawsuit against township

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ALMENA TOWNSHIP, Mich. — "Not in my backyard" is the mantra some residents are saying in response to a proposal to construct a new cellphone tower in the community. Verizon Wireless is working to finalize plans to build a new tower near a private airport in Almena Township on 45th Avenue, but officials have delayed the process.

Now Verizon is suing the township in federal court.

In order to meet needs for increased capacity, Verizon said the parcel in Almena Township was chosen as the "most favorable," the lawsuit reads, based on requirements of the township's zoning ordinances and technical findings of radio frequencies.

The original requests for the special permit needed to construct the tower were filed by Verizon in February. In the spring, the township's planning commission recommended approval to the township board.

But in June, the Almena Township Board voted to deny the Verizon's application, citing the need for more documentation to show "proof of need" in reference to the location, height and other specifications of the tower.

Verizon had previously agreed to lower the height of the tower from 185 to 165 feet.

Rather than wait to appeal to the township, the company instead filed suit in federal court, alleging it provided substantial documentation to officials for consideration. The property on 45th Avenue in the township, next to a privately-owned airport, was chosen due to its central location in the region, according to Verizon.

In the suit, Verizon claims members of the township's board own the airport and nearby property and have failed to disclose such conflicts of interest. Plus, Verizon claims that several of those board members expressed "unsubstantiated concerns" over safety with the proposed tower location near the airport.

"In an effort to address [the member's] unsubstantiated concerns, Verizon Wireless engaged an independent aeronautical expert to evaluate the location," the suit reads.

All members viewed as having conflicts of interest had recused themselves from voting on the issue.

Verizon also accuses the township of illegally dragging its feet on a decision by failing to approve the permits within the required time frame.

“It’s big business after the little folks… there’s no question in my mind," Allan Hughes told FOX 17. Hughes said he lives on property directly next to the proposed site for the new cell tower. He said the concerns over safety are warranted, adding he's also concerned about what the tower might do to his property values.

“No, I don’t want it," he said. "I’ve lived at my property for 35 years, and I’ve got a lot of money invested."

The cell company stands firm that those types of claims are bogus.

Monday night, several residents attended a public meeting of the township zoning board of appeals. Members on the board were asked to consider whether the the township board's decision to deny the permit was appropriate.

Not all who spoke Monday night opposed the tower.

“The need is there, and anyone who lives in this community knows the need is there," said one man. "Verizon couldn’t have picked a more centralized location of the need of the phone service.”

Attorney Steve Estey, representing Verizon, told the appeals board it was clear the company had fully complied with all ordinance provisions and the company was entitled to a permit. Estey declined to offer any further comment to FOX 17 after the meeting.

The board of appeals voted to support the zoning board's decision to deny.

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