Residents resist Clackamas emergency communications tower
Four Lake Oswego residents walked into the meadow at Cooks Butte City Park and looked up. There was no mistaking the disappointment on their faces as they imagined a 196.5-foot communications tower erected near the Palisades Crest park entrance.
"We get to enjoy the beauty of this (park), hear the birds and hear the owls," Lake Oswego resident Scott Handley said. "This to us adds a non-monetary value to our lives — an enrichment."
Handley said he thinks a communications tower would destroy the essence of the park.
And he isn't the only resident displeased with the location of the tower.
It was apparent that many community members were unhappy with the proposal of building a public safety communications facility at Cooks Butte during the neighborhood meeting held Sept. 18 at Lakeridge High School.
Clackamas 800 Radio Group (C800) — a conglomerate of 18 different public safety agencies like police and fire departments in Clackamas County— held the informational meeting to discuss the project and hear community members' concerns prior to submitting a land use application to the City.
The public emergency communications facility would be located at 2100 Palisades Crest Drive, just inside the park entrance and off to the left — about 200 feet from Palisades Crest Drive. The proposed facility would consist of a 180-foot tower with 16.5 additional feet for antennas and the associated ground equipment like a propane tank, generator and shelter enclosed in a 50-foot by 50-foot fenced compound.
The purpose of the tower is to improve communications for police, fire and life safety personnel, and according to John Hartsock, C800 manager, and Bjorn Morfin, agent for C800, Cooks Butte is the best location in the city, providing good indoor and outdoor coverage in an area that currently has spotty coverage or dead zones when public safety personnel try to communicate via their radio system.
"From a public safety standpoint, the tool we use more than anything is our radio," said Lake Oswego Police Chief Dale Jorgensen, adding that the current analog system is failing and decrepit. "The most important tool we have for you (residents) is our radio. ... Right now we have issues."
While most community members understood the need and importance of public safety personnel to communicate properly, they were against the proposed site.
Cooks Butte City Park was sold to the City in 1975 from John and Marjorie Emery for $190,000. The 42-acre natural area boasts soft surface trails and wildlife viewing, while providing a quiet distraction from city life for many community members.
When the Emerys deeded the park to City, the agreement stated that "the premises will not be sold or used for any purpose other than park purposes or public utilities during the lifetimes of the grantors and their three living children, or the survivor of them, without their express written consent."
This isn't the first time the tower construction has been proposed.
In 1994, GTE — which later was bought by Verizon — proposed to construct a cellular tower in the park.
Marjorie Emery submitted an affidavit to make clear the intent of the deed, which was to have the site be preserved as close to its natural state as possible during the lifetime of the grantors and the Emerys' three living children. She did not want a cellular tower. The affidavit stated that the term "public utilities" was not intended to include public facilities that were "visible above ground or which would significantly impair the natural state of the site."
According to Hartsock, the water tank in Cooks Butte has a 40-foot public works radio site that was built on it in the early 1980s and the Emerys had no objection to that.
The proposed communications tower needs to be above tree level to produce a reliable signal, and the water tank cannot structurally hold a tower of that height.
In 2002, C800 proposed a communications tower that prompted outrage from citizens and concern from members of the Emery family.
John and Leslie Emery saw the installation of a communications facility to be a breach of the deed.
Walter Emery was also concerned with the possibility of additional towers being added to Cooks Butte in the future.
The City then dropped the exploration of the communications tower — until 2018 when the City of Lake Oswego and C800 entered into a communications facility site lease.
City Attorney David Powell said it's not unusual to enter a lease prior to submitting a land use application because it's important for C800 to know, prior to committing to the work to file a land use application, that the City is willing to lease the property to them.
Walter Emery — with consent from the other two siblings — gave his written consent for the proposed communications tower.
"If it is a communications tower that will assist the police and security people like the police to better communicate and not have dead zones, overall I am for it," said Walter Emery, adding that his opinion would change if the tower exceeds the treelines "too much."
Community expresses concerns
During the Sept. 18 meeting, community members expressed concerns about additional equipment being added to the communications tower.
Jorgensen said in discussions with the City it was clear that the City does not want other uses for the tower because the addition of cell carriers could create an interference with public safety communications.
In addition, Powell said the lease states the property will only be used for emergency communications and no other facilities will be added without the City's consent — and the City has no interest in doing so. The Emerys also only provided consent for an emergency communications tower.
"We have double restrictions there," Powell said.
Residents also had health concerns with radiation exposure from the tower.
"Another community concern is because of the size of the tower and the type of equipment that's going on it, the microwave frequencies that might be emitted from it, being so close to a residential area, there's not enough scientific evidence (that they won't be harmful)," Handley said. "People choose not to be by these things because it's unclear, because it's a very residential, very young family area. I think it will destroy the park and people won't be coming through and enjoying it."
Hartsock said C800 conducted studies in 2002 from the public works radio tower that's already located at Cooks Butte and homes to the west of it, and it did not increase the amount of radiation that's already in the atmosphere.
Hartsock said with all the natural radiation in the air from TVs, radios, power lines and cell phones, the radiation emitted from the tower would be within federal requirements. He added that the height of the tower lessens the impact of radiation because it's being projected at a greater distance and the trees aren't absorbing it.
Hartsock said there are studies that C800 is required to produce as part of the land use application, so C800 will have that information as part of the application.
Residents wondered if there would be increased danger by having a 1,000 gallon propane tank in the park and asked if the City had a response plan to deal with natural hazards like a fire.
Hartsock replied that the propane tank will be underground and there will be an emergency response plan. He agreed that there are more safety hazards with the implementation of a communications facility, and added that the site will have a live camera.
One resident questioned how the Lake Oswego Fire Department would reach a potential fire fast enough since Cooks Butte provides only a single-lane for vehicles. Fire Chief Don Johnson responded by saying the Fire Department does its best to respond to "unlikely" situations and the Fire Department would find ways to shuttle water to Cooks Butte and overcome the hypothetical situation.
Other questions surrounded the disturbance of wildlife, tree removal — one tree was proposed to be removed — the use of other locations and different technology devices that don't require a communications tower.
Hartsock and public safety personnel say Cooks Butte provides the best coverage because of Lake Oswego's uneven terrain. For example, Hartsock said, in Wilsonville a communications tower can have good coverage on the other side of the city because it's flat, whereas Lake Oswego is not.
Hartsock said the high elevation at Cooks Butte ensures the tower would cover most of the city.
While another location has been considered in Lake Oswego in the Skylands/Uplands area, C800 said the coverage perspective is better at the Cooks Butte facility and would help address radio dead zones or spotty coverage in Lakeridge High School and the backside of Overlook Drive.
"When we come in here and we get down into the bottom of this building (Lakeridge), the way it's constructed because of all the earthquake measures — same with Lake Oswego High School and same with buildings out in Meadows — without the proper towers and radio coverage we can't get out, and there's nothing more terrifying for both citizens and our cops and firefighters not to be able to push a button and talk to somebody that can come and give them help," Jorgensen said. "We're kind of selfish and that tower where it sits, according to the technical people, will give us the best coverage as Lake Oswego residents and as public safety professionals. All the different debates can go on. I just know I want our officers and I want our citizens to be served by the best possible radio system."
The Skylands area is currently covered by the Milwaukie communications tower but the Kruse Woods area still needs coverage, so a second tower will need to be built in Lake Oswego at some point.
The second tower will need to be placed in the northern part of Lake Oswego, Hartsock said, to provide building coverage at Lake Oswego High School and in the area that feeds into Multnomah County.
Hartsock said Cooks Butte is a more pressing location at the moment.
The current radio being used is the new digital iteration that was purchased through a $56 million radio replacement bond issued by Clackamas County on behalf of C800 — a bond that will also pay for the communications towers.
While the communications towers throughout Clackamas County vary in size and type, Hartsock said the average cost of the total site is about $1.5 million.
The bond covers 25 total communications towers in Clackamas County, 22 of which are already finished.
"We're getting there," Hartsock said.
The public safety agencies in Clackamas County are moving from an obsolete analog system to a digital system, which will make communicating more efficient and dependable, though more communications towers are needed to make the system reliable because when a digital signal is lost, it's gone.
Hartsock said the goal is to have the Lake Oswego communications towers erected by May or June of 2020.
The City is still awaiting a formal land use application to be filed by C800. The application will then go before the Development Review Commission during a public hearing.
Handley and several other residents said after talking to neighbors about the Sept. 18 meeting, many were in the dark and said communication about the meeting to all residents was poor.
Handley said he and other residents against the Cooks Butte site have canvassed neighborhoods and attended public functions, and have gathered over 400 signatures for a petition against the project at Cooks Butte.
"The goal is to send a strong message to City Council and other city officials that Lake Oswego residents are adamantly opposed to the construction of any telecommunications tower in Cooks Butte natural park — ever," he said, adding that residents can visit http://savecooksbutte.com for more information and to view the video of the neighborhood meeting.
"Just because it's the easiest site, doesn't make it the best site," said Lake Oswego resident Michael Louaillier. "We all want the first responders to have that communication. This has been going on at least since 1994. There are solutions. The challenge for C800 and the whole city is to find the solution — not the easiest solution, but the best solution."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.