Planning commission approves permit for contentious cell tower

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Gene Tamashiro on Thursday outside the Aupuni Center in Hilo points to a De Jure “Lawful” Kingdom of Hawaii Packet while protesting the proposed construction of a 5G cell tower in Hawaii Paradise Park.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Gene Tamashiro talks about rights allotted to the people of the Hawaiian Kingdom while protesting a 5G cell tower, which could be built in Hawaii Paradise Park, on Thursday outside the Aupuni Center in Hilo.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Michael Schiszler holds a petition in front of the Aupuni Center Conference Room while Jose Adame Romero talks about the effects of 5G he experienced while serving in the military during a small protest in Hilo on Thursday during the Windward Planning Commission meeting.

One of two contentious cell towers in Puna is back on the table after a meeting of the Windward Planning Commission.

In March, the commission denied use permits for a pair of cell towers proposed by telecommunications company AT&T, one of which would be built in Kurtistown and the other in Hawaiian Paradise Park.

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However, the commission voted during its Thursday meeting — the first one conducted since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic — to reconsider its decisions regarding the towers. While the commission upheld its decision for the HPP tower, it reversed its Kurtistown decision, approving that tower’s permit.

The Kurtistown tower received significant pushback at previous commission meetings from community members fearful that the tower will generate carcinogenic radiation. The proposed 180-foot-tall monopole would be built only a few hundred feet from the nearest residence and less than a quarter-mile from Kamehameha Schools Hawaii.

Andrew Tomlinson, site acquisition specialist for AT&T, told the commission Thursday that it is actually not legally capable of denying the use permit based on fears of cell tower radiation.

“Principally, the commission’s hearing violates federal law,” Tomlinson said. “During the previous hearing for the use permit application, the emotional distress expressed by public testifiers was grounded solely in their fear of radio frequency emissions from the proposed monopole. This fear is not grounded in fact.”

Tomlinson said any possible radiation emissions from the tower will fall well within parameters set by the Federal Communications Commission and added that federal law prohibits state and local governments from regulating the construction of wireless service facilities based on radiation concerns so long as the facility meets FCC parameters.

While public testimony was not possible during Thursday’s online meeting, a handful of community members protested outside the Aupuni Center Conference Room in Hilo, where the Windward Planning Commission typically conducts meetings.

One protester, HPP resident Jose Adame Romero, said he was medically discharged from the Army because of health effects caused by continual radiation exposure.

Activist Gene Tamashiro said the fact that the commission did not allow the public to testify during the meeting is a failure of the local government to uphold the Constitution and warned that AT&T has no right to build towers that are not consented to by the public.

“We’ve done our due diligence,” Tamashiro said. “If they put that tower up, we have the lawful right to take that tower down.”

County planner Jeff Darrow advised the commission to postpone the tower issues until a later meeting when members of the public would be able to testify in person. However, some commissioners questioned what the point would be.

“There’s been ample opportunity, both in person and in writing, for members of the public to make their opinion very well known to all of us,” said Commissioner Joseph Clarkson. “And I see little chance that a future public hearing is going to add something new to our consideration of this matter.”

“We know what the public thinks and how they feel. We’re going to hear it again and again for every cell tower,” said commission Vice Chairman John Replogle. “And it’s my understanding that we legally can’t deny this, if the pole’s not going to fall over.”

The commission voted 4-1 to approve the Kurtistown tower, with only Chairman Thomas Raffipiy voting against it.

The HPP tower, however, remains dead. That tower was denied a permit in March partly because of the possible presence of a children’s playground within the tower’s 105-foot falling radius; while Tomlinson asserted Thursday that no such playground exists, commissioners recommended the tower be placed elsewhere within the chosen lot.

Clarkson asked Tomlinson to renegotiate with the site landowner and HPP Owners Association to replace the tower within the lot so its falling radius encompassed nothing but empty land. Tomlinson said such a renegotiation would require AT&T to “start from scratch,” requiring new applications for a use permit.

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However, that scenario seemed agreeable to commissioners, who voted unanimously to uphold the findings of fact from the March meeting, requiring AT&T to draft modified plans for the placement of the HPP tower.

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

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