The Regional District of Central Kootenay has endorsed several non-contentious Telus cell phone towers around the region but heard Thursday from residents concerned about a proposed tower in Winlaw.
Clare Kelly and Allison Lang of the Slocan Valley Citizens for Safe Technology appeared before the board asking for a local protocol on public consultation for antenna siting. The board has already endorsed a policy developed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities but the citizens group suggested several changes and additions.
"This happens in several municipalities in Canada and it can certainly happen here," Kelly said. "We feel local goverment is the right place for this to happen. It really just takes political will."
Lang explained a key request is for public consultation to happen sooner. Currently, it occurs after the proponent has already invested time and money on a particular site, but the citizens group feels it should come when the proponent first notifies a municipality or regional district of plans to build an antenna.
She said a 60-day public input period should precede site development so the proponent can consider that feedback when choosing a location.
"Telus has proposed to put their antenna very close to one of our schools," Lang said. "And we don't want it very close to our school. Had they received that information from the beginning, they might not have chosen that site."
Lang said once a specific site is determined, nearby residents — as well as schools, daycares, and seniors homes — should be notified by mail or hand-delivered notice, followed by a second 60-day consultation period.
"So the 120-day public consultation is divided into two parts: one to take input before they develop the proposal, and then afterward to see if what they've come up with is acceptable."
Telus has put its Winlaw tower on hold based on public opposition and agreed to investigate other potential sites, but hasn't promised the tower won't end up in the controversial location off Wishloff Road.
The tower is part of Telus' agreement with the provincial government to extend wireless coverage to over 1,700 kilometers of main and secondary highways. It expects to build up to 14 towers on Highway 6 from Nelson to Salmo and South Slocan to Vernon.
However, the citizens group worries about health risks from electromagnetic radiation and says it could harm Winlaw's reputation as an "environmentally healthful and pastoral destination."
After the presentation, the board passed a motion asking their staff to consider the information from both residents and Telus and come up with a policy around public consultation.
Chair John Kettle called the presentation "excellent ... I thought they were reasonable, which I like." However, he wasn't sure how much the board could do: "In this case, probably not much."
As a land-use authority, the regional district has a say in the site consultation process, but the towers themselves are regulated by Industry Canada.
Other towers endorsed
Despite the ongoing controversy over the Winlaw tower and another in the Salmo valley, the board gave its blessing Thursday to six towers where there has been little or no public feedback: two east of Creston, one in Fauquier, two others along the Arrow Lakes, and one near Cottonwood Lake.
Kettle said cell coverage is "critically" needed on the highway between Creston and Cranbrook due to a high incidence of crashes and difficulty in calling for help.
However, he apologized to the Slocan Valley citizens group for a motion passed last month to expedite the approvals process based on a request from Telus. He said they would have preferred to hear from the citizens first, but believed the entire project faced being delayed a year."
"As a result, those of us who need cell towers for life, limb, and property moved forward to try to get those in our area, respecting the fact that people in the Slocan and [rural Samo] may want to look at this further," Kettle said.
Slocan Valley director Walter Popoff, however, said his understanding was the non-contentious towers would proceed while the company took another look at the Winlaw site.
"The Telus letter could have possibly been misinterpreted as 'everything's on hold.' As far as I know the process is continuing. Telus is moving forward with the towers where there was no feedback, but the ones that are contentious they're going to revisit."
Popoff said although he was among rural politicians who urged better cell coverage on rural highways, he shares residents' concerns about the Winlaw tower placement.
The tower isn't the only controversy in the area involving wireless technology: parents at Winlaw Elementary successfully lobbied the school district to have Wi-Fi turned off.