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Vernon County Zoning Committee tables Bug Tussel cell tower permits decision
henshue speaks
CHRIS HENSHUE of Bug Tussel speaks to the committee and citizens present to provide public input on the company’s application for four cell phone tower permits.

VIROQUA - In Wisconsin law, Act 20 which removed local control from municipalities around cell tower siting decisions, seemed the trump card that would carry the day for Bug Tussel. That would seem to have meant that the Vernon County Zoning and Sanitation Committee’s decision to table a decision about approving four Bug Tussel tower permits is a postponement of the inevitable. 

However, the reluctance on the part of committee members to approve the permits felt like a small victory for the almost 30 citizens who attended the public hearing on Tuesday, May 14. They had the chance to hear Chris Henshue of Bug Tussel speak and to provide the committee with their input.
bug tussle crowd
MORE THAN THIRTY citi-zens attended the Vernon County Zoning and Sanitation Committee meeting on Tuesday, May 14, to weigh in on whether or not the committee should approve four Bug Tussel cell phone tower permits that were on the committee’s agenda.

Henshue speaks

CHRIS HENSHUE of Bug Tussel Wireless spoke to members of the Vernon County Zoning and Sanitation Committee in Viroqua on Tuesday, May 14.
By: GILLIAN POMPLUN

Supervisor Garrick Olerud (Westby) expressed a strong opinion once the public input portion of the agenda was closed.

“I feel strongly that we should table this decision and decide as a county if we really want to try to fight these towers,” Olerud said. “I would like to see this discussed more broadly on the county level, and if opposition is as universal as it seems, then maybe we need to explore what we can do to improve this process.”
Supervisor Garrick Olerus

“I feel strongly that we should table this decision and decide as a county if we really want to try to fight these towers,” Olerud said. “I would like to see this discussed more broadly on the county level, and if opposition is as universal as it seems, then maybe we need to explore what we can do to improve this process.”

Henshue, Bug Tussel’s Business Representative for Site Acquisition in Vernon and LaCrosse counties, explained the nature of Bug Tussel’s project in the area. 

“Our project calls for building seventeen 300-foot guy-wired cell phone towers every seven-to-eight miles in Vernon County in the next 12 to 18 months,” Henshue told meeting participants. “In order for the network to function, every tower is needed so that the ones connected to fiber can talk with the ones that are not.”

Henshue elaborated that the towers would carry three different networks on them. Bug Tussel broadband internet, AT&T mobile  commercial phone, and FirstNet Built by AT&T.

“At the very top of the towers will be Bug Tussel broadband equipment, to be placed within 12 months,” Henshue said. “From day one, the towers will carry AT&T radios and antennaes, which will enable their commercial wireless as well as FirstNet.”

The mission of the FirstNet build out is to deploy, operate, maintain, and improve the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.

Henshue said that after the build is complete, AT&T is expected to have a 30 percent better network in the area than the current providers - Verizon and U.S. Cellular.

“During the 911 crisis and Hurricane Katrina, so many people were using their cell phones, that police, fire and EMS could not use their phones to effectively communicate,” Henshue said. “That’s why the federal government has decided to build the FirstNet network to solve this issue.”

Henshue explained that every state was given the option of building their own network or signing on with the national network. All 50 states voted to join the national network. Three years ago the federal government awarded AT&T the contract to build it. When complete it will reach 99.5 percent of the population in urban areas, and 95 percent of the population in rural areas.

“When there is no crisis, then FirstNet will not use all the bandwidth, but if there is, then it will have the option to expand its use,” Henshue said. “The program will make cellular devices available to county and town officials, and emergency first responders for just a couple of dollars, with very affordable data plans.”

Radiation threats

Henshue addressed the question of whether the radiation coming from the towers would be harmful, possibly causing cancer as some have alleged.

“There are basically two types of radiation, ionizing which can be harmful at the cellular level, and non-ionizing, which is not harmful,” Henshue said. “Cell phones put off 100 times more radiation than a tower, and cell phones are safe for humans. Just being exposed to ultraviolet light in the sun is potentially more harmful than a cell tower.”

Henshue said that because of the required density of antennae for 5G technology, there is essentially no way that it will ever exist in rural America.

“I myself have reservations about the safety of 5G networks,” Henshue said. “5G is where you start to get into that scary spectrum.”

Henshue says that he places his trust on the subject with the American Cancer Association (ACA), which he asserts, has said that radiation from cell towers is not dangerous for humans.

“There are hundreds of bands and spectrums of radiation, and you have to read what you find on the internet very carefully,” Henshue said. “I believe that the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could possibly be bribed to reach a conclusion that there is no danger, but I don’t think that the ACA can be bribed.”

Lowell Rheinheimer of rural LaFarge queried Henshue about exactly what technology would be located on the towers, and exactly what kind of radiation would be coming off of them. Henshue responded that he is not on the ‘retail’ side of the business, but that Adam Craig with Bug Tussel could answer those kind of questions. Craig can be reached at 262-424-9947, or adam.craig@bugtusselwireless.com.

Kaia Deschane, of rural Soldiers Grove, questioned Henshue about whether Bug Tussel has a legal fund to pay for claims in the event there should be harm to citizens from long-term exposure to radiation.

“It is the FCC that licenses the spectrum,” Henshue said. “Legally, it would all go back to the FCC.”

Landowner rights

A lot of the discussion in the public input session focused on landowner rights and community rights.

Discussion focused on the process of identifying landowners to lease to the company, county and township zoning, property values and impact on real estate sales in the vicinity of towers.

Zoning and Sanitation Committee Chairman Supervisor Eric Evenstad (Westby) stated that the only powers granted to the county in making these decisions in state statute is the requirement that the applicant consider co-location on another tower before deciding to build their own tower.

“All of our towers have to be the same height – 300 feet – for our network to function property,” Henshue said. “The other company’s towers are only 100 or 200 feet tall, so they won’t work for us. While Verizon’s network nationally is built on co-location, U.S. Cellular likes to build their own towers.”

One citizen brought up that Vernon County’s ordinance contains language about “protecting the interests of Vernon County citizens.” She expressed that she believed that allowing companies like Bug Tussel to build cell towers with potentially harmful health impacts, without consent of the people, is not protecting citizen interests.

Chairman Evenstad queried Henshue about the contracts with landowners already signed, and asked, “if the permit is denied, does that mean the contract is void?’ Henshue responded, “we’ve never had that happen.” 

Outgoing Zoning Administrator Susan Burkhamer asked Henshue if he had ever encountered a situation where a permit is approved by the county but blocked by a township? Henshue responded that Bug Tussel had also never experienced that.

Committee member Olerud seemed frustrated with state law that has taken local control away from counties and municipalities.

“Why are we even taking a vote if we don’t have a choice?” Olerud asked. “I think the vote should be delayed until we have time to think about it more. The company should be working more with people who will be the neighbors of these towers in the siting decisions.” 

Supervisor Ole Yttri  had his own comments to offer on the topic.

“So if Verizon decides that they want to build towers, then are we going to get twice as many towers?” Yttri asked. “People out here don’t want these towers – I don’t want these towers.”

Yttri asked Henshue if he would be willing to come and talk to the Town of Webster Board about the Croell tower in Avalanche. “Our board knows nothing.”

Henshue queried Burkhamer about whether or not he had followed the law with respect to the Avalanche site. Burkhamer responded that “yes, he had.”

Henshue made the assertion that he negotiates with the landowner to site the tower, and Bug Tussel is “not using the power of the state statute to ram cell towers in where they are not wanted.” This assertion was greeted with some scornful and skeptical comments from the citizens present, such as “Yes, you are!”

Jim Theler, Town of Harmony Zoning Committee member, asked why Bug Tussel had gone to the county before coming to the township regarding the Whisler permit.

“Our township has comprehensive planning and a zoning ordinance, so you will require a conditional use permit from our town,” Theler said.  

“There has been no communication with our township, and I first heard the tower was going to be built as a rumor at the town dump,” Harmony Town Chairman Loren Goede reported. “Our township has subrogated zoning to the county, but not planning.”

Henshue seemed surprised to hear this, and stated that going to the county before the township had been a “huge oversight.”

Another Town of Harmony resident reported that since signing the lease, the landowner where the Whisler tower will be located has “become lukewarm.”

“Last Sunday I went over to talk with him about my concerns, and on Monday I saw that the parcel where the tower will be located is now for sale,” the resident said. “Does it matter to you if your landowner partners are enthusiastic?”

Henshue explained that any leases that are signed stay with the parcel even if it is sold. The leases he said “max out at 40 years.”

Property values

The statistic that property values can decrease by as much as 20 percent when a cell tower is built, and could have repercussions for current and future real estate transactions was another significant topic.

“Do you understand why landowners are upset about these towers being build near them?” one citizen asked Henshue. 

“Yes, but the landowners who choose to lease to us also have rights as landowners to do with their properties as they will,” Henshue replied.

As far as the proposition that proximity of the tower could cause property values to decrease, Henshue disputed that fact.

“I’m not a tax assessor, but I think an argument could be made that proximity to a tower could actually enhance property values,” Henshue said. “When people move to or visit this area, they want to be able to stay plugged in.”

Cate Gitter of rural Viroqua who operates a bed and breakfast business took issue with this proposition.

“People come to stay at my business to get away from it all,” Gitter said. “If my place is surrounded by cell phone towers, will people still want to stay there? I’m concerned about the impact on tourism from these towers.”

Evan Blattner of Viroqua commented that “it is awfully presumptuous of you to be telling that bed and breakfast owner what tourists want – many people come out here to get unplugged.”

Ron Hansen of rural Hillsboro had a different take on it than Henshue.

“I currently have a handshake agreement to sell a parcel of land that the buyer has now discovered will be right next to your Madden tower,” Hansen said. “At this point, my sale is looking a little shaky. And there are other homeowners in the same immediate area that are concerned about it as well.”

One Town of Harmony resident asked if the company would reimburse the township for any damage to town roads from bringing their heavy equipment in to build the tower.

“Our equipment is no different than any other truck that would drive on that road,” Henshue said.

Another citizen from Viroqua asked if their property tax assessment would be adjusted to reflect loss of value because of the tower.

“You will have to talk to your tax assessor about that,” Burkhamer responded.