MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — AT&T is asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn a judge's decision barring the company from building a 450-foot cellphone tower with flashing lights that would be visible within parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Attorneys for AT&T Mobility LLC say the trial court incorrectly applied a key state law to federal land, overstated the aesthetic impact of the proposed tower on the wilderness area, and failed to give adequate weight to the public safety benefits from improved cellular coverage for residents living near the BWCA and for visitors within it.
The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness sued AT&T to block it from building the 450-foot tower east of Ely, on a 150-foot-high ridge about 1.5 miles outside the BWCA. They persuaded Hennepin County District Judge Philip Bush that the tower and its flashing safety lights would spoil views in the wilderness area, in violation of state law, and that a 199-foot tower without lights would be sufficient.
AT&T's attorneys acknowledged in a brief filed last week that the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act protects "scenic and aesthetic resources ... owned by any governmental unit." But they argued that the state law shouldn't be applied to federal land, noting that most of the BWCA is federally owned. They also argued that while the tower would be visible in some parts of the BWCA, its impact would fall below the standard set by the law. And they wrote that a 1990 Court of Appeals decision the judge cited as a precedent against the tower was legally flawed.
They also argued that Bush was wrong to conclude the shorter tower will be adequate to promote public safety and expand the availability of cellphone service in the area. They said it will provide 71.8 fewer square miles of reliable outdoor coverage than the 450-foot tower, much of it within the BWCA, and 11.8 fewer square miles of reliable indoor coverage for residents along the main road east of Ely.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said construction is under way on the 199-foot tower and they expect it to be operational by mid-2012. He said AT&T will replace it with the taller tower with no interruption in service if the company succeeds on appeal. He said AT&T still believes Lake County's approval for the original proposal was correct.
"We feel strongly that this is a public safety issue, and that the facility the county approved is needed to best serve and protect the safety of residents and visitors," Richter said in an email Tuesday.
Greg Seitz, a spokesman for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said he couldn't comment on AT&T's arguments because the appeal is pending.
The Friends' reply is due early next month. Other environmental groups and affected local governments have received permission to file friend-of-the-court briefs. The court has not yet scheduled oral arguments for the case.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.