County commissioners OK controversial TV tower on Mount Morrison

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By Vicky Gits

Foothills residents put up a spirited defense, but after a three-hour hearing, Jefferson County commissioners on April 1 gave public television stations the OK to build a 135-foot, high-definition TV antenna array on top of Mount Morrison above Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Commissioners Kevin McCasky, Kathy Hartman and Jim Congrove voted to approve the tower construction proposal, which dates to 2003. The subject was back before the commissioners after an appeals court said the previous panel of commissioners had made several mistakes in the approval process. McCasky said he reviewed the entire record and deemed the proposal was not new zoning, since towers were already there, and was in conformance with the related land-use plans.

“I believe the subsequent changes benefited the community, and the applicant proved there was no acceptable alternative,” McCasky said. “I vote yes in view of the limited nature of the case before us and in light of the federal legislation we have been dancing around all morning,” said Commissioner Kathy Hartman, who was referring to 2006 congressional action that superseded all local opposition to tower construction on Lookout Mountain.

Congrove said he concurred with McCasky. The main beneficiaries of the ruling include Rocky Mountain PBS Channel 18 digital TV, KUVO-FM, Colorado Public Radio KVOD FM, Channel 59-TV and DTV, Channel 14-DTV and Channel 23 low-power TV. The existing Channel 6 tower on Lookout Mountain will be removed, along with the Channel 59 tower on Mount Morrison.

The commissioners OK’d basically the same proposal approved five years ago by another set of commissioners, but they changed the wording of the permitting resolution slightly to comply with the directions of the appeals court. Instead of “substantially” in compliance, the tower was deemed “generally” in compliance with land-use rules.

“How much more do the county commissioners owe the ghost of Leo Bradley?” said Galen Knickel, a longtime resident of Genesee. Bradley owned the land on which the tower is to be built.

“The land should be a buffer zone and not a tower farm that makes money at the expense of everyone else,” Knickel said.

But TV stations argued Mount Morrison is the ideal location for high-definition broadcast antennas and there is no good substitute elsewhere.

“We need the height and a new permanent location,” said Jim Morghese, president of Rocky Mountain PBS and one of the members of Public Interest Communication Group, the consortium backing the tower.

Morghese said the alternate location on Squaw Mountain would not reach 30 percent of his audience. The hearing at the Jefferson County administration building attracted an audience of about 30 people, including about a dozen from the affected communities.

The action follows in the wake of federal legislation that came down Dec. 12, 2006, allowing a TV consortium to build a supertower on Lookout Mountain to the north. The same group fighting the Mount Morrison tower also waged a 10-year war against the Lookout Mountain tower.

Originally approved 2-1 in 2004 after a series of public hearings, the Mount Morrison TV tower was put on hold for five years while the citizens’ group, CARE, fought a legal battle against it all the way to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In May 2006, CARE won a major victory when the appeals ruled the county-approval process was flawed and that the commissioners made a mistake by allowing significant changes to their proposal after the public testimoney was closed. The approved tower will have a more horizontal configuration with an array of dishes suspended on a structure supported by poles.

The antenna structure and the building are designed to hug the ridgeline and to blend into the landscape but still will be visible from a distance. Two smaller towers currently stand on the mountain.

“It replaces an unattractive tower with one that is designed to be camouflaged in the landscape. It means there will be other broadcasters and new space for more stations,” said Martha Whitmore, an attorney representing Bear Creek Development Co.

Consultant Jay Jacobs-Meyers stated that putting the tower on Squaw Mountain would mean eliminating 116,000 viewers for Channel 18 and 175,000 for Channel 43. Viewers in Longmont and Boulder would not get an adequate signal, he said.

Deb Carney, the attorney for the homeowner group Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, argued against the plan, saying it did not meet the standards of either the Telecommunications Land Use Plan or the Central Mountains Community Plan. She opposed the towers on the grounds of visual impact, interference, health effect and general incompatibility with residential areas. She said the facts prove there are other acceptable locations for super broadcasting towers.

“The Central Mountains Community Plan prohibits a dominant ridgeline silhouette. It should be mostly trees and land forms. There should be no extra commercial or industrial uses,” Carney said. “We already have a travesty on lookout Mountain. Please don’t make this happen on the other side.”

Carney described the commissioners’ decision as evidence that “foothills residents are the dumping ground for RF broadcast TV and FM for much of the Front Range. We have to bear the resulting pollution from the high-power radiation that interferes with our electrical equipment and causes biological changes in nearby residents.”