An overflow crowd of more than 60 people showed up at the community center Tuesday, August 20 to talk about a proposal to build five 150-foot-high AM radio towers on a 10-acre parcel of land abutting Tyee Drive and McKenzie Way. If anyone attending was in favor of the idea, they kept their mouth well and truly shut. The topic was taken up by the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC), a group appointed by the county executive to provide feedback to the county on issues concerning Point Roberts, at their August 20 meeting held in the community center.
A Washington state company, BBC Broadcasting, Inc., has applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) from Whatcom County to build the towers. The antennas will produce a broadcasting signal for KPRI Ferndale 1550 AM which bills itself as “your number one South Asian voice.” The company currently broadcasts at 50,000 watts during the day and 10,000 watts at night.
The antennas will be located at 1563 McKenzie Way, just south of Nielson’s Electric on Tyee Drive. The project consists of the towers, a driveway, parking area and a 600-square-foot equipment shed.
The county planning department has identified conditions that would mitigate the “adverse environmental impacts” of the proposal. One, the vertical lattice antennas would be constructed using non-reflective steel; two, the development would maintain the vegetative buffer along McKenzie Way and Tyee Drive; and, three, would comply with the Point Roberts tree canopy requirements under WCC, Title 20. The parcel’s zoning is Rural (R5A).
The company faced withering opposition from Ferndale residents in 2005 when it applied for re-licensing by the FCC.
Numerous complaints of radio interference with radios, TV reception, baby monitors and ham radio stations were entered into the record to no avail. Opponents drew attention to the fact that the radio is directed towards a Canadian audience and broadcast in a foreign language but were rejected on the grounds that foreign languages helped the FCC meet its goal of increasing diversity. How increasing Canadian diversity would aid the FCC’s American goals was not addressed.
The vehement opposition was noted by the engineering company tasked with finding a new location for the towers, which referred to the Ferndale location as being a “poisoned well.” It is not certain that the company has been successful in escaping that stigma in its choice of Point Roberts for the tower – a community referred to by the engineering consultants as being “economically depressed.”
Signs declaring “No Towers” have appeared on Tyee Drive near the proposed location and a “Stop the Towers” campaign has been created to mobilize residents against the project. To join the email list, email email@example.com.
An online survey seeking to determine residents’ opinions received 446 responses, 397 (or 89 percent) that were opposed, 40 (or 8.9 percent) in favor with nine respondents saying they did not care. The survey was sent to subscribers of the All Point Bulletin’s weekly news update, the ePB, as well as the PointInterface mailing list. The response rate was nearly 40 percent. In addition, the All Point Bulletin has posted documents concerning the application and opposition on its website.
PRCAC chair Arthur Reber presented a status report on the project to the crowd and pointed out that while the 15-day comment period had closed on August 16, senior county planner Suzanne Bosman had advised him that her department would continue to enter comments into the record going forward.
Reber pointed out that the CUP notice was only published in The Bellingham Herald with notices only being sent to properties within 1,000 feet of the project.
“My guess is that the [planning department] will issue an environmental determination of non-significance (DNS),” said Reber, which would mean that the applicant would not be required to perform any further environmental reviews. He added that Bosman and county staff did not appear to know about the residents’ concerns in Ferndale, an incorporated city with its own planning department.
Following the staff recommendation, the CUP process moves to the county hearing examiner who will hold public hearings. Those speaking before the examiner are required to restrict themselves to issues of fact covered by the application and staff recommendation or to present issues that have not been adequately considered by the planning department. Either the proponent or opponents can appeal the decision of the hearing examiner to Whatcom County Council.
Reber told the audience that council is a quasi-judicial body and is not allowed to comment on any issue that might come before them. He added that four members of the seven-member council are up for election this fall and it would be interesting trying to determine how each of them might vote on a possible appeal.
Ham radio operator Steve Wolff told the crowd that Point Roberts’ ham radio club members were unanimous in their opposition to the towers. Citing an objection filed with the FCC, he recounted how one ham radio operator in Ferndale had received burns from the radio energy captured by his radio tower from the KRPI broadcasts.
Reber encouraged the crowd to continue to write to the county planning department while another audience member suggested writers should include the fact that the towers do not fit into Point Roberts’ character plan.
Opposition to the project appears focused on the lack of local benefit, radio interference and potential health effects. One resident, John Hammell, wrote to the county declaring, “If these towers aren’t blocked, I will chain myself to a tree on the building site or perhaps in front of BBC corporate headquarters for the purpose of going on a hunger strike until I either starve to death or dehydrate to death, and I will do all in my power to publicize my hunger strike. Please don’t force me to die this way. I am the sort of person who is willing to die for his causes.”
Suzanne Bosman, Senior Planner
Whatcom County PDS
5280 Northwest Drive
Bellingham, WA 98226