AT&T tower stirs opposition

AT&T’s takeover of Durango’s Alltel assets is already generating local static, as the telecommunications giant works to construct a 200-foot cell phone tower along the edge of the San Juan Skyway. Concerned neighbors are objecting to the proposal, saying it will damage the viewshed and is ultimately unnecessary.

AT&T has applied to La Plata County to build the tower on the west side of U.S. Hwy. 550 not far from Tamarron. The 20-story tower would be sited on 9.24 acres of private land in order to fill in a wireless gap in the region. The company’s application states, “AT&T’s proposed wireless telecommunication facility would be a compatible development … and provide wireless service in areas where there is none at the present time and improve service in areas where the signal is weak and calls are dropped.”

The application goes on to argue that the “slimpole design” would create little to no visual impact in spite of its location at the base of the Hermosa Cliffs. “The view corridor would be protected as this tower would create the lowest visual impact possible,” it reads. “The proposed site … is on the west side of Hwy. 550 which has the Hermosa Cliffs, however, the areas listed as scenic vistas in that area are on east side of the highway.”

Neighboring residents strongly disagree with this assessment and have kicked off a push known as “Stop the Tower.” John McClelland lives near Electra Lake and feels that AT&T’s proposal is unacceptable.

“None of us is against cell towers,” he said. “But we’re against this one. It’s a blight on one of our only remaining vistas, and it’s potentially precedent setting. It’s the first cell tower on residential property in that view corridor in that north county. The bottom line is there has to be a better way.”

McClelland has done one thing that AT&T has not and generated a computer simulation of the tower. The images show a large pole towering more than 100 feet above the trees and dominating views to the west of the highway.

“AT&T claims you won’t see the tower because of the vegetation,” he said. “But this tower is 20-stories high. You will see it going up and coming down Highway 550, and it will be clearly visible from the adjacent communities. They can’t just paint it out of existence, and they can’t make it look like a fake pine tree.”

Nonetheless, the neighboring residents are open to compromise but are still waiting for AT&T to respond to their comments.

“It’s a bit of a quandary,” he said. “There are some cell carriers that seem to be able to provide good service in the area without having these massive towers off the side of the highway. Maybe they can co-locate with another provider or they might be able to build a 100-foot tower and hide it more effectively.”

The La Plata County Planning Department is currently reviewing AT&T’s application and looking for public input on the tower plan. A Neighborhood Compatibility Meeting will meet at 5 p.m. Tues., March 29, at Hermosa Cliffs Fire Station 15, across from the Electra Lake turnoff. McClelland and others are hoping one key player will come to the table.

“We’re waiting desperately to hear from AT&T,” he said.  

Piñon Ridge Mill receives final permit

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week inked the permit on Piñon Ridge, the nation’s first uranium mill to open in 25 years. The agency issued a radioactive materials license to Energy Fuels Inc., which will allow the Toronto-based company to process up to 500 tons of uranium per day not far from Durango in the Paradox Valley. However, construction of the mill remains an unknown as Piñon Ridge continues to face a legal challenge.

The license makes official the state’s Jan. 4 approval to Energy Fuels’ application, which called for siting the mill on 1,000 acres of privately owned land in Paradox Valley. The facility will sit squarely in the middle of Western Colorado’s uranium belt not far from the only other operating uranium mill in the country, the White Mesa Mill in Blanding. With its approval, the state released a 432-page analysis of the facility and expressed satisfaction with Energy Fuels’ assessment of impacts on public health, rivers and groundwater.

However, the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a leading opponent of the mill, is crying foul. Citing its own studies, the conservation group has sued, alleging that the state failed to conduct an adequate analysis of impacts.

“We think this approval decision was rushed, despite known deficiencies,” said Hilary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance. “It appears regulators ignored hundreds of pages of comments from scientific experts who raised serious concerns about the mill’s impacts.”

On Feb. 23, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the group lacks standing. This week, Energy Fuels filed its own motion to dismiss Sheep Mountain’s claim that the state failed to conduct the necessary administrative procedures.

White has vowed to see the lawsuit through and says that the group will continue to oppose the construction of Piñon Ridge.

Strong 2010-11 ski season takes shape

Colorado’s ski areas are en route to a strong tourism season in spite of a small dip during January and February. Excellent snowfall combined with economic recovery have the state’s resorts up 3.4 percent over last season and close to pre-recession levels.

“Here in Colorado, our season-to-date is the strongest the industry has seen since the 2007/08 season and the start of the economic recession,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA.

Near-record early season snowfall boosted visits at many resorts. However, early 2011 was marked by brutally cold temperatures and difficult travel conditions, two factors that steered skiers elsewhere. Mills and CSCUSA are expecting a late bounce and a strong finish in the season’s remaining weeks.

“It’s that dedication to the sport and loyalty guests have for Colorado’s resorts that have us on track for a solid season, albeit probably not one for the record books,” she said.

– Will Sands




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