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Residents fight cell tower near homes

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A proposal to place a Verizon cellular tower in a residential area has some locals concerned for their property value and safety.

The tower would sit in Unit 10, in the southwest part of the city, in a growing residential zone with custom homes, called Vista Montebella.

Rio Rancho Planning and Zoning Board denied the location request in January, citing the lack of evidence that the tower would not create an unreasonable risk arising from a collapse, structural failure or weather-related safety issues, or that the lot is the only option.

Sean Milkes, owner of Gravity Pads and the developer of the tower project, along with Kim Wood of General Dynamics, appealed the decision and told the Rio Rancho Governing Body on March 27 that the location is optimal. At least five other sites had been tested for coverage, according to information provided for the meeting.

“This is an optimal spot to cover these areas… (Presbyterian) Rust Medical Center and Unser (Boulevard). This is an extremely important site,” Milkes told the council. “We looked at different spots. We tried to work with the schools, but we were denied at Rio Rancho High School.”

He said he has been building sites here for 23 years.

The previous tower has been on the water-tower property off McMahon Boulevard in Albuquerque since 1996, Milkes said at the meeting. It serves Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Verizon must find a new location due to the expiration of the lease, to accommodate new technology and for unspecified homeland security issues.

The description of the tower varied between city meetings. Originally, it was described as resembling a tree or a clock tower 65 feet tall, and later as a rust-colored mono-pole reaching 75 feet, which Milkes called a “stealth design.”

It would sit on a lot 80 feet wide, surrounded by an 8-foot wall.

Milkes and Wood couldn’t be reached for further comment.

Christopher Corcoran, a Vista Montebella property owner, told the board he was concerned for the safety of his children because of extreme winds, and he had a hard time believing the tower would be camouflaged. Another resident, Andrew Johannsen, said he was concerned about home-value depreciation.

“My wife’s oncologist said, ‘I wouldn’t live there,'” said neighbor Rob Beckerich in an interview.

His wife is undergoing cancer treatment.

“It creates a dead zone. Nobody wants to live next to a cell tower,” said Clark Simpson, another resident in opposition to the tower.

Matt Ehrhardt, a property owner and father, lives 80 feet from the proposed tower site. Ehrhardt has collected research that he has emailed to governing body members.

“If the tower fell, it could crush my family while they are swimming in the pool,” he said.

He also said the owner of the lot proposed to host the tower could earn $2,000 to $4,000 a month by allowing it to be built. Wood could not be reached to verify this.

City spokeswoman Annemarie Garcia said it was the city’s understanding that an Albuquerque based-entity owned that property.

Ehrhardt argues placing the tower in his neighborhood breaks multiple Rio Rancho codes for wireless telecommunications facilities.

“They (Milkes and Wood) exhibited zero alternatives to the public and our neighborhood to potentially achieving the same objective outcome at one of the 10 alternative non-residential sites within the one-mile proposed radius as required by Rio Rancho code,” he said.

Ehrhardt said he has hired an attorney.

A 2014 survey by the National Institute for Science, Law and Public Policy supported the idea that cell towers hurt interest in real estate properties and value, according to the institute’s website.

Governing body members voted for a continuance of the appeal on March 27, with Councilor David Bency as the only one voting against it. They’ll hear the matter again at their regular meeting starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

The governing body asked Milkes and Wood for the data the P&Z board found lacking.

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