A cell tower in Marine is one step closer to reality following passage of a conditional use permit (CUP) and a variance request by the city’s Planning Commission.
The Marine on St. Croix Planning Commission held a public hearing regarding a variance request for construction of a 4G cell tower at the city compost site. The hearing was held to specifically and only for the variance request.
The variance is part of a larger conditional use permit (CUP) previously submitted by Vinco. A public hearing for the CUP was held in May and comments were received.
Vinco’s request for a cell tower was moved to the City Council on Aug. 11, 2022 for a final decision.
The hearing for the variance request was a result of Vinco’s original cell tower application not meeting certain setback requirements outlined in the city zoning ordinance. The City’s Wireless Communication Tower Ordinance establishes minimum setbacks of ½ mile west of the centerline of Highway 95 and 1/4 mile from any boundary of a state park, unless demonstrated that the tower will be stealth designed and visually inconspicuous as viewed from the locations on a year-round basis.
Based on recommendations from the City Attorney, the Planning Commission asked Vinco to add a variance request to the cell tower application and the City Council extended the timeline to review the application. The new and final deadline will be Aug. 16 2022.
During the public hearing, Chair Spisak explained, “In October 2021 the city adopted a revised and amended wireless ordinance developed to create an up-to-date ordinance with current technology. On April 18, 2022, the city deemed the application from Vinco complete. The process that is before us now is for the Planning Commission to review that application and make a recommendation to the City Council as to whether or not it meets the requirements of the ordinance.”
“We have received comments from a number of people, to be entered into record. Comments tonight need to be directed to the variance language only, we are not here to take testimony about whether there should be a tower,” he said.
Spisak further explained that the city ordinance requires that an antenna be a minimum of a ½ mile west of Highway 95 which is 2640 feet, the application has the antenna placed at approximately 1100 feet.
Five people spoke during public comment. Community members expressed views that are opposed to and in support of the cell tower.
Marine resident Michael Towers commented that there was an error in Vinco’s variance application. He pointed out that the ¼ mile (440 feet) requirement was not met. As proposed, Towers said the cell tower would be placed at 246.5 feet or 1/5 mile.
Towers also expressed concerns that the compost site is not consistent with, “The purposes and performance standards of the zoning ordinance” and he raised concerns about the intent of the application not being addressed.
Towers referred to a state statute that says variances shall only be permitted when they are in need with general purposes, the intent of the ordinance and if the variances are consistent with the comprehensive plan.
“The natural settings of the historic context of the city of Marine on St. Croix are among the most valuable assets. The city is located on St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the National Park system and is home to William O’Brien State park. Compromising these assets risks undermining the very characteristics responsible for our unique economic vitality and future intention. Protecting these assets requires the location and design of tower facilities be sensitive to and stay in harmony with the aesthetics and community of the city.”
Towers concluded his comments by asking, “If granted, will this variance be in keeping with the spirit and intent of the city zoning ordinance purpose? Everyone wants better cell service but the intent of ordinance is not being addressed and is it in line consistent with the guiding principals of the Comprehensive Plan? Our we being good steward of natural resources and encourage private parties to do the same?”
Marine resident Valoree Dowell spoke to the Planning Commission in support of the proposed cell tower location. “I would like to see this get done. There has been a lot work done on behalf of the city to research potential sites and make the most reasonable decision.”
Following public comment, Chair Spisak opened the discussion to the Planning Commission. He then asked the City Attorney if anything heard during public comment changes the discussion.
“The matter is whether or not the variance criteria have been met,” said City Attorney, Dave Snyder. “Ultimately it is a broad legislative question for folks like the Planning Commission and the City Council to decide. These are general standards and there is a fair and reasonable amount of discretion in making that call. Perfection is not required. Good faith efforts are required. For purpose of your discussion tonight is to determine if the statutory criteria are met. If you do that we will reach a decision consistent with legislature and what is asked of you. Test the application against the standards and make the best call,” he said.
During the discussion, Commissioner Sanderson took a moment to make a general comment to inform the public about the process, “We looked town wide for a site and put together a good team of Planning Commissioners, City Council members and citizens. Is it a perfect answer? No. But I think for what the community needs balanced with components of the comprehensive plan (the natural aspects of community, economic needs, safety needs and other components). Part of our job as a Planning Commission is to find that balance. Through this process we found the best site to provide this service.”
Chair Spisak commented, “There was a lot of effort by a lot of people for several years leading up to this application. We are your neighbors and fellow citizens it s not always easy to balance things.”
Commissioner Smitten explained, “This has been a long journey. I do sincerely appreciate that our residents shared their research so we make sure that we are thinking about all different parts to this while we are deliberating. Our job is not have a opinion, our job is to review the tower application, compare it to the ordinance and make our best judgment as to whether or not the application is meeting the criteria, and that is what we have done,” she said.
“We looked at 13 different sites, worked with consultants, conducted our own research and we are fortunate to have had a lot of people engaged. I suggest we do a little housekeeping with the language and correct the variance application to reflect the setback of 246.5 feet versus 440 feet,” Smitten said.
Chair Spisak requested the language in the variance be changed for final record.
Commissioner Sanderson made a motion to accept the cell tower variance request. Smitten seconded the motion. A roll call vote was taken, motion carried unanimously.
Casey aye; Sanderson aye; Smitten aye; Spisak aye; Hagstrom aye; Henry aye ; Mrsola aye.