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FCC Ruling Preserves State/Local Right to Control Height, Shape of Telecommunications Towers in the Adirondack Park & Beyond

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FCC Ruling Preserves State/Local Right to Control Height, Shape of Telecommunications
Towers in the Adirondack Park & Beyond 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, Wednesday, October 29, 2014

For more information:

John F. Sheehan, Adirondack Council, 518-432-1770 Ofc; 518-441-1340 cell

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A coalition of New York environmental and historic preservation organizations today praised the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for preserving the rights of state and local governments to regulate the size, shape and visibility of communications towers in scenic and historic areas.

In January, the groups sent a joint letter to the FCC, urging federal officials to recognize that scenic beauty and historic significance are the backbone of local tourism, both inside and outside of the Adirondack Park. 

They asked the FCC to reject the notion that expansions of 10 percent or more in the height or width of cell towers would have no impact on the environment or historic preservation.

“People have said ‘the Adirondack Park needs cell towers, but not ugly cell towers’ and today we applaud the FCC for agreeing. This Park is a mixture of public and private lands that depends on its wilderness character to attract millions of visitors and hundreds of thousands of seasonal residents each year,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway.  “The Adirondack Park Agency’s outstanding policy on telecommunications towers has been a model for the entire nation.  It has allowed rapid expansion of cell phone and broadband service, while screening new towers to preserve the wild and historic character of the Adirondack Park and its communities.

“The APA has done an excellent job of ensuring that new towers fit into the surrounding landscape,” Neil Woodworth, Executive Director of the Adirondack Mountain Club said.  “Cell phone and broadband companies both report that they have faced no unreasonable regulatory delays.  That is success.  We are very pleased that the FCC’s new rule recognizes that success.”

“This ruling will help preserve the integrity of historic sites and communities across New York, whose residents have worked hard to protect their rich heritage and unique charm,” said Daniel Mackay, director of public policy for the Preservation League of NYS.  “New York has stunning scenic beauty and more than three centuries of culture to celebrate. Tourism is vital to our economy.  We are pleased that the FCC honored our efforts to bolster these new regulations.”

“Scenic Hudson has worked with local partners for the past seven years to protect Blue Hill in the Olana viewshed from an expanded telecommunications tower,” said Jeffrey Anzevino, Scenic Hudson’s director of land use advocacy.  “This ruling is a victory for those local and state agencies seeking to strike the right balance in providing wireless communications services without destroying the historic and scenic resources upon which their economies depend.” 

In 2013, the FCC proposed new rules streamlining the approval process for minor expansions of telecommunications towers and equipment.  The rules eliminate the need to seek local or state permission for the change in most cases.  That would have eliminated the Park Agency’s jurisdiction over tower expansions.  The FCC would have granted automatic approval -- even if the expansion allowed a formerly concealed tower to dominate an otherwise natural or historic landscape.

However, the FCC’s recent ruling specifically excluded from automatic approval any proposed tower expansion that “would defeat the existing concealment elements of the tower or base station.”  (See pg. 10 So if a proposed expansion would make a concealed tower visible, the APA could still enforce its towers policy.  That policy requires new installations to be “substantially invisible.”

Signing on to the letter were the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy, NY Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Parks & Trails New York, the Preservation League of New York, Protect the Adirondacks, Scenic Hudson and Sierra Club, Atlantic Chapter.

Also expressing support for the FCC’s decision is the Central Adirondack Partnership (CAP-21).

“We congratulate the FCC for protecting the rights of local citizens to provide guidance to their appointed and elected officials as they determine how cell towers and other communications structures should be sited and expanded in their own communities,” said Peter Bauer, Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks!  “The FCC ruled that it can encourage speedy deployment of new communications technology without abolishing state and local jurisdiction over modifications to the size and shape of towers.”

The organizations did not object to new rules allowing the rapid expansion of low-profile, distributed-antenna systems for telecommunications, which would speed deployment of communications equipment on existing buildings. They also did not object to new rules allowing temporary towers in some locations.

Under the new FCC rules, changes in height, construction materials and equipment configuration would be exempt from all local and state review, as long as the modification doesn’t “substantially change” the dimensions of the current structure. The rule defines the term substantially change for the first time.  Tower alterations that “would defeat the existing concealment elements of the tower or base station” will continue to constitute a substantial change and cannot receive automatic approval under the new rules.

The new rules follow 2009 FCC Declaratory Ruling that required automatic approval of expansions of 10 percent -- or more under certain circumstances – in an effort to speed development of new technology nationwide.

In the Adirondack Park, state and local regulators long ago anticipated a conflict between those pressing for improved communications and those who value the wilderness character of the park’s landscapes, or the historic value of its communities and buildings. In 2002, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) established standards to allow for rapid expansion of communications without allowing a significant impact on environmental, scenic or historic resources.

The APA enforces a requirement that all tall structures be “substantially invisible.”  In addition, individual communities have persuaded companies to use existing structures (steeples, water towers, chimneys, etc.) to conceal new installations.  In many cases, the state and local regulators have adjusted the tower height, location, and use of screening techniques to achieve desired communications coverage -- without slowing the rate of new installations or improvements.

The Adirondack Park hosts 10 million annual visitors and 130,000 year-round residents, who cherish its natural beauty and historic significance, Janeway noted.

The Adirondack Council’s mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of New York’s six-million-acre Adirondack Park.  The Council envisions an Adirondack Park comprised of core wilderness areas, surrounded by working forests and farms, and vibrant rural communities.

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