Emily Royall / Rivard Report
After encountering opposition from local residents, the company planning to construct a cell tower near Lost Maples State Natural Area has decided not to build the 250-foot structure, choosing instead to use an existing tower in the vicinity.
Jared Ledet of Branch Communications sent an email Aug. 15 to residents of Vanderpool in Bandera County, informing them that Branch and T-Mobile had reached a “final conclusion” not to build the proposed cell tower.
Less than one month ago, on July 22, residents noticed surveyors setting out stakes on a privately owned property off Foster Ranch Road, adjacent to the Sabinal River and about 3.5 miles from the Lost Maples State Natural Area.
By the end of the month, 15 residents had filed Requests for Environmental Review with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), arguing that the site was unsuited for the proposed tower due to the delicate surrounding ecosystem, the potential risk to resident endangered bird species, the unmarred landscape, and increasingly scarce dark night skies.
Residents also appealed to the Bandera County Commissioners Court and created an online petition to help support their cause.
Ledet, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Branch, visited the site Aug. 10 and met with local landowners, including Roger Gray and Steve Thompson, whose family has held land in the area for generations. The residents took Ledet to the top of a hill overlooking the site to give context to their concerns.
While there, they pointed out the blinking light atop an existing tower 3.5 miles from the proposed site. The tower, owned by the American Tower Corporation (ATC), is currently not in use.
Ledet listened. In his e-mail to residents he wrote: “After much consideration and a significant concession by T-Mobile, they have made the decision to utilize the existing ATC tower south of the proposed Branch Tower location.”
Although the existing tower is not in an optimal location for T-Mobile's purposes, Ledet said T-Mobile executives felt it was an acceptable concession, balancing preferable site location for the carrier with consideration for the community's concerns. In a interview with the Rivard Report, Ledet said that T-Mobile will now be able to provide coverage to the area much sooner. He added that Branch had not been fully aware of the other tower, and that while he is in the tower-building business, “no one wants to see unnecessary proliferation” of cell towers.
Ledet expressed some regret that surrounding pressures directed and dictated what private landowners can do with their property. This echoes Bandera County Commissioner Jordan Rutherford’s earlier suggestion that property rights were at the crux of the dispute. Other residents disagreed, saying that in this instance the implications for the surrounding area were significant enough not to be ignored.
The present mood among the Vanderpool residents is one of gratitude. LaDonna Hoover, an incumbent landowner to property that has been in her family since 1873, told the Rivard Report she felt “enormous gratitude for the talent and efforts of our neighbors. I have no doubt that without their work and perseverance we would have been negatively impacted by this tower.” She also expressed appreciation for Ledet's personal involvement in the issue, as well as T-Mobile’s willingness to make a concession.
Other residents, including Roger Gray, Jeff Braun, and Caroline Royall, echoed Hoover’s sentiments.
The news for Vanderpool residents coincides with another decision closer to home: Verizon Wireless has pulled out of a proposed cell tower project at the Colonial Hills United Methodist Church in San Antonio. The proposed tower, designed to be 80 feet tall and cross-shaped, met with staunch neighborhood opposition. Concerns about zoning resulted in a years-long struggle that has now been put to rest.
District 9 Councilman John Courage told the Rivard Report that Verizon decided to seek an alternative way of providing better coverage to the area after “immense pressure from the residents and our office.”
“I am certainly pleased with their decision,” he said. “I hope other communities take note of the result and speak up should they ever face a similar predicament.”
Colonial Hills resident Glenda Wolin called these recent developments a great example of the power of people banding together for a common cause. Vanderpool and Colonial Hills resident Royall added that there is still work to be done in order to put more power in such matters in the hands of local governments and residents.
Vanderpool residents Braun and Baker also emphasized that this is only the beginning. “More towers will inevitably come,” Baker said. “I’m so grateful [that] this one has been moved from my view, but I don’t want it to happen to someone else.” She said that, given the limitations of existing FCC regulations, particularly for rural areas, it’s difficult to know how best to proceed in achieving more favorable outcomes.
Braun said he hopes that in the future, the FCC will require more extensive due diligence on potential sites, and that cell companies will consider and utilize available towers before building new ones.
“This was a very unique situation," Braun said. "Not everyone has the kind of access and skill sets we were able to draw on to preserve this area.”
He would particularly like to see regulations changed to grant rural areas the same rights as urban ones, especially regarding advanced notification of planned sites and the opportunity to raise concerns.
Gray, Royall, Braun, and Baker all agreed that recent events have drawn together neighbors who might otherwise have never met. “We are, of course, so pleased at the outcome of the tower,” Gray said. “But we have also discovered each other, and formed an instant community.”
“We’ve made lifetime bonds with incredible people,” Braun said.
Royall added that despite the situation having been a trying experience, especially for landowners who "scrimped and saved" to achieve their dream of owning a little piece of unspoiled land, it was also a “blessing in disguise. In our effort to combat it, we found a community.
“Both experiences [in Vanderpool and San Antonio] have taught me that when laws fail to protect us, we have our voices and we have our neighbors. People are essential in preserving and shaping the fabric of the communities we live in, whether in urban or rural settings. Our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren depend on what we do today.”