SOUTHWEST WISCONSIN - Local residents in Vernon and Richland counties are asking some hard questions about the company Bug Tussel’s plans to install dozens of cell phone towers in the two counties in 2019. Residents in the Richland County, Town of Bloom, near West Lima, say that through Vernon Telephone Cooperative they already have great, affordable, internet from fiber optic cable laid to their front door, as well as adequate cell phone service.
The company Bug Tussel Wireless, based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has gotten State of Wisconsin Broadband Expansion grant funds earmarked for providing internet to underserved areas in rural Wisconsin. On the tower siting applications they file, in most cases submitted to county zoning committees, it says that “the proposed site will have AT&T mobile voice and internet services, and also include Bug Tussel Wireless fixed internet services.”
The name ‘Bug Tussel’ is an interesting and quirky name for a company that builds cell towers and delivers mobile internet services, especially in rural Wisconsin. It seems Bug Tussle, Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains, was home to the Clampett family from the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ television sitcom that aired in the 1960s.
The company has been active in Southwest Wisconsin with building towers since the early 2000s, but according to the Iowa County Director of Planning scott Godfrey, “it has really picked up since Act 20 was passed by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2012.”
From an article published in the Isthmus newspaper in November of 2013:
“The last budget session was a lovely one for AT&T and other wireless phone providers. Lobbyists for these companies had pushed for legislation in countless states to end local control over the installation of cell phone towers, with mixed success.”
“But no state was more receptive to these lobbyists than Wisconsin, where Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee grabbed the bill as written by telecom lobbyists, plunked it into the budget bill and sent it on to the full Legislature, which passed it.”
The new law created in 2013, Act 20, states specifically that a political subdivision (town, village, city) may regulate cell phone towers under a zoning ordinance, but places strict limits on how it may do so. It specifies the procedures and standards a political subdivision must use in reviewing applications for permits to construct or modify towers. It also lists specific limitations or regulations that a political subdivision may not impose on the construction or modification of a tower. Significant among these, it specifies that a political subdivision may not prohibit the placement of cell phone towers in particular locations within the political subdivision, meaning essentially that it may not designate cell phone towers as a prohibited use in any zone.
More information about the law can be found at: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/misc/lc/information_memos/2013/im_2013_14
Dozens of permits
Crawford County Zoning and Sanitation Manager Jake Shedivy reports that his office has received no permit applications for cell tower construction from Bug Tussel.
Richland County Zoning and Sanitation Manager Mike Bindl reports that his committee recently approved three tower construction permits, and is expecting another 10 more to come in front of this committee this year.
In Iowa County, since 2012 the Planning and Land Use Committee has issued 12 permits, and two are currently pending, according to Godfrey.
In LaCrosse County, County Board Chair Tara Johnson reports that the company is expected to build up to 21 towers in the next 18 months.
“Since adoption of Act 20 by the legislature removed the county’s ability to approve or deny cell tower siting permits, we basically have three choices,” Johnson said. “We can deny them and face litigation; we can let them lapse in which case they are automatically approved; or we can approve them with conditions.”
Johnson explained that LaCrosse County has adopted the last option. Some permits recently approved have contained as many as 12 conditions.
“As long as the applications meet the state criteria, our committee must approve the permits,” Richland County Zoning Administrator Mike Bindl explained. “With our committee, the permits are basically just a pass-through.”
In Vernon County, Zoning and Sanitation Manager Susan Burkhamer reports that the company expects to build 17 towers in 2019, with three already approved and built. At their upcoming meeting on Tuesday, May 14, 8:30 a.m., at the Erlandson Office Building at 318 Fairlane Drive in Viroqua, the committee has on their agenda consideration and approval of four permits to be located in Trippville on the Madden property; in West Prairie on the Walleser property; in Purdy on the Whisler property; and in Avalanche on the Croell property.
“A few years ago, Bug Tussel came to our committee and informed us that our cell phone tower siting ordinance was not in compliance with state law,” Burkhamer said. “Our committee decided that we needed to change our ordinance and voted to do so.”
Burkhamer said that because of the law enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature in the 2012 biennial budget, Act 20, local control or “home rule” with respect to cell tower siting decisions had been removed from local units of government.
“We hold public hearings, but really we don’t have any power to deny these permits,” Burkhamer said. “I feel bad when we hold these hearings and give citizens the impression that they really have a voice in these decisions, because we don’t anymore.”
Burkhamer said that Vernon County does not have comprehensive zoning, and most townships in the county are not zoned either. The companies are required to obtain road and building permits from the township.
The Town of Stark has a zoning ordinance, section 2.07 Height Restriction that clearly says “No structure or tower shall exceed 100 feet in height, and the set back shall be equal to the height.”
Despite having this language in their town’s ordinance, the Vernon County Zoning and Sanitation Committee approved the permit on Munson Road in Stark Township on September of 2017. The tower was recently completed, and according to Episcopeeditor Lonnie Muller, it was like one day the tower wasn’t there and the next people saw the lights flashing on it at night. The town board approved the necessary building and road permits.
While Bug Tussel has notified Vernon County of their intent to build a tower in the Town of Whitestown, they have not yet filed a permit application.
Unlike Vernon County and the other townships in the county, the Town of Whitestown has comprehensive planning. According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration website, “A comprehensive plan is a local government's guide to community physical, social, and economic development. Comprehensive plans are not meant to serve as land use regulations in themselves; instead, they provide a rational basis for local land use decisions with a twenty-year vision for future planning and community decisions.”
Although, according to Town of Whitestown Board Chairman George Wilbur, Bug Tussel has not submitted an application for a building permit or road permit to their board, they have requested an audience. That audience will take place at the town board meeting on Tuesday, May 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Whitestown Town Hall, located at E1701 Sandhill Road, Ontario.
Reasons to oppose
Although much opposition to the towers being built has centered around the unproven idea that the towers will carry 5G microwave cellular technology, residents also cite support for local control or home rule, as well as aesthetic concerns and rural lifestyle concerns.
The 5G cellular technology represents a large leap in intensity of radiation emitted and need for density of placement of the antennaes. Many scientists in other countries have said that the safety of the technology for living organisms is unproven, and should be “denied until proven safe” under the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle states that “the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted.”
The permit applications submitted to the counties for approval do not specify the exact technologies that will be deployed on the towers.
“As far as saying whether the towers will carry 5G technology, I could neither confirm nor deny that” LaCrosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson said. “I do know, though, that the real issue with the cell towers is that the state legislature has robbed municipalities of local control to make decisions about whether they want these towers in their areas.”
All zoning department managers have confirmed that they are being told that the towers are necessary for deployment of ‘First Net: Built with AT&T,” whose mission is to deploy, operate, maintain, and improve the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. Their website specified that the network will provide “a reliable, highly secure, interoperable, and innovative public safety communications platform that will bring 21st century tools to public safety agencies and first responders, allowing them to get more information quickly and helping them to make faster and better decisions.
Implementation of the First Net initiative, adopted in 2012 after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, is overseen by the First Responder Network Authority. This is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its mission is to ensure the building, deployment, and operation of the nationwide broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities.
Much of the unproven hypothesis that these towers will be linked to 5G technology comes from its association with AT&T. On the website, RCR Wireless News, an article entitled ‘FirstNet is AT&Ts springboard to 5G,’ published on March 13, 2019, it says:
“The FirstNet network build-out is helping AT&T to increase its network capacity by about 50 percent as it adds additional band support while turning up FirstNet’s Band 14 spectrum, according to John Stephens, AT&T’s CFO. Stephens spoke at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in March 2019.”
As AT&T builds out the FirstNet network, he said, it is also adding support for its AWS and Wireless Communications Spectrum holdings, as well as enabling LTE features such as 4×4 multiple-input multiple-output, four component-carrier aggregation and 256 QAM modulation, Stephens said. With those spectrum aggregation capabilities, he went on, the difference is akin to having four single-lane highways compared to one four-lane highway.
“We’re putting all this in place at once and getting a step-function above the LTE that we had, and evolving it toward 5G at the same time,” Stephens said, noting that the equipment AT&T is using is 5G-upgradeable via software and towers will not need to be climbed again to enable the upgrade.
Local West Lima resident, Nick Stanek, a third generation farmer in the area, notes that the tower will be built on a parcel of land that adjoins his property.
“I am concerned about the erosion of our rural lifestyles and the aesthetics of our beautiful area,” Stanek explained. “I don’t want to see our area become an endless industrial nightmare. We already have great internet and good cell phone service, and we don’t need these towers.”
Stanek explained that he had attended school with both Scott and Stuart Miller, and has known them all of his life. Scott Miller is the landowner who has agreed to lease his land for construction of the West Lima cell phone tower. Miller, a part-time beef farmer who also works at a job in Richland Center, according to Stanek, is interested in the cell tower lease because “it will pay his property taxes.”
“Scott Miller didn’t tell any of his neighbors that he was leasing his land to Bug Tussel for a cell phone tower,” Stanek said. “He is getting paid $3,000 per year to lease the land and his brother is on the Town of Bloom Board which approved the building and road permits.”
Landowner Julie de la Terre who lives on a farm that shares a property line with Stanek’s land will have the tower essentially “right in her backyard.”
“The soil tests have already been done and the tower will likely be built in June,” de la Terre said. “It has been well documented that property values in the vicinity of a cell phone tower plummet by 20 percent. This is a landowner rights issue, and it’s a local control issue.”
De la Terre and Stanek have formed a group of local citizens to fight the installation of cell towers and educate their neighbors about local control and the health impacts of cell tower radiation. Initially, the group organized 28 neighbors to write letters to Bug Tussel expressing opposition to building the tower in their neighborhood. Now the group has held a meeting, and adopted the name ‘People for Sane Technology.’