'Pine tree' cell tower may be built in Pasco

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJune 1, 2014 

Drivers at the intersection of Road 68 and Court Street in Pasco may soon notice what appears to be a giant pine tree.

No, Christmas hasn't come early.

AT&T is planning to build what would be Pasco's first cellular communications tower disguised as a tree -- 90 feet tall, complete with fake bark, branches and foliage.

Managers from radio station KALE-AM expressed concerns at a planning commission meeting last week that the new tower might interfere with signals from three nearby towers.

AT&T spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel is confident the tree will not interfere with radio signals, she said.

"My understanding is that it meets all local and FCC requirements," she said.

Bill Glenn, a consulting engineer with KALE-AM owner Ingstad Broadcasting, said the tower could act as a reflector for its signal, pushing it to the northeast. That could mean it will have a hard time reaching Richland at night, when its signal is reduced.

The Federal Communications Commission requires radio stations to be able to have their signal reach the city where they are chartered, which is Richland in KALE's case, Glenn said.

Locating the new tower alongside the existing towers, instead of 600 to 700 feet away, would cause less interference with the radio signal, Glenn said. Verizon uses one of the radio towers for its signal.

"The closer the radio tower is, the less of a signal problem there is to compensate for," he said.

The tower is below the 100-foot threshold that would require it to be studied for its impact on radio signals under federal law. But Planning Commission Chairman Joe Cruz said the city could require an interference study as a stipulation for its approval.

The city has worked with cellular companies in the past, Cruz said.

"I don't recall ever having denied one, but we've kind of pushed them around a little bit," he said. "That's kind of what we're seeing here."

The planning commission will consider approving the tower at its June 19 meeting. If passed, it would still need approval from the city council.

The tree design may be new to Pasco, but is common in other areas. Cellphone towers in Arizona are disguised to look like palm trees.

The pine tree design will disguise a 14-foot-wide mounting arm located midway up the tower, which can also be used to provide service for two other cellular providers.

"We use that design quite often," Bichsel said of the pine tree.

The city council recently approved a cellphone tower to be built atop Desert Springs Covenant Church at 9915 W. Argent Road.

"It would look like an old-style bell tower," said Rick White, Pasco's community and economic development director.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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