Cell tower permits denied for AT&T projects in Kurtistown, HPP

  • MIKE BRESTOVANSKY/Tribune-Herald From left, Anna Maneja, Edelyn Ellwood, Carlita Maneja, Ramona Araujo and Prescott Ellwood oppose the construction of a nearly 200-foot-tall cellphone tower on an agricultural lot in Kurtistown.

Tempers and temperatures ran high at a Windward Planning Commission meeting that ended with two proposed cellphone towers in Puna being denied use permits.

Dozens of residents came to Thursday’s meeting in Hilo to oppose proposals by telecommunications company AT&T to build a pair of cell towers, one in Kurtistown and one near the intersection of Makuu Drive and 17th Avenue in Hawaiian Paradise Park. Both towers required use permits in order to be built in their respective zones; both were ultimately denied.

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The bulk of the consternation concerned the Kurtistown tower, which was proposed to be 180 feet tall.

Andrew Tomlinson, site acquisition specialist for AT&T, said the site was chosen specifically because it would help fill a network gap and provide more reliable service for emergency responders, as per a federal program.

But that site was located within only a few hundred feet of a nearby residential community, and less than a quarter mile away from Kamehameha Schools Hawaii.

Although Tomlinson said there is no scientific consensus correlating cellphone towers and greater risks of cancer — he said the ground-level radiation around the base of a tower is “thousands of times” less than the maximum allowable by the Federal Communications Commission — residents vehemently protested against the project.

“Some people probably bought these homes because there weren’t any towers,” said one testifier, who added that the towers could devastate local farming by affecting bee populations.

Prescott Ellwood, a resident of the Kurtistown community, called the issue “a landmark case” and announced his intention to take the case as far up the courts as necessary to prevent the project. He also warned that the tower site is directly in the path of stormwater drainage for the community, and would increase the likelihood of floods.

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder also attended to give testimony, saying he only learned of the project two to three weeks ago and urged AT&T to take an exhaustive look at all other possible sites.

“We need to listen to the public, and I think today the public is speaking very clearly,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said.

Several others in attendance said students and faculty at Kamehameha Schools were unaware of and concerned about the project; still others cast aspersions on the integrity of the FCC and the various health organizations that have denied any conclusive correlation between cell towers and cancer.

Anger and frustration mounted as the meeting went on. Chair Thomas Raffipiy repeatedly called for order in the conference room as attendees interrupted Tomlinson’s remarks.

The furor only escalated further when Deputy Corporation Counsel Malia Hall, in response to shouted remarks from several attendees, retorted, “We’re not here for you,” although she clarified seconds later with the follow-up, “We’re not here just for you.”

So incensed were the opponents that one of them briefly collapsed. Ellwood, who told the Tribune-Herald Tuesday that he has a heart condition, appeared to faint after the meeting’s loudest exchanges. While he was revived after a short rest, the conference room’s broken air-conditioner kept tempers short throughout the meeting.

Commissioner Joseph Clarkson made three motions about the Kurtistown tower, and withdrew two. The first was to approve the permit, which he rescinded after Tomlinson proposed delaying the issue further to accommodate a series of public informational meetings about the project.

Clarkson then withdrew that second motion, and instead moved to deny the permit outright, saying the case would clearly be brought before the Third Circuit Court eventually, based on his fellow commissioners’ positions and the clear public opposition, and the commission “may as well speed it up.”

The motion to deny the Kurtistown permit passed unanimously.

The HPP tower attracted fewer, but no less passionate, testifiers.

A primary point of contention was Tomlinson’s discussions with the HPP Owners Association.

While Tomlinson said the president of the association had approved of the 105-foot tower, several testifiers argued that the association is a perennially dysfunctional organization that frequently holds meetings without notifying its general membership. Commissioner Dean Au, himself a former HPP resident, agreed with that assessment.

Tomlinson also said the association leadership had assured him that there is not a children’s playground within the tower’s anticipated falling radius, but several attendees confirmed there is one.

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Because the existence of a playground in the immediate vicinity of the tower would necessitate building in a different location, which would itself require a new permit, Clarkson moved to deny the HPP permit as well. His fellow commissioners agreed unanimously.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.