Courtesy / Jada Baker
On July 22, Jeff Braun was in Vanderpool overseeing construction on his Hill Country home when he noticed a group of surveyors putting stakes on the other side of his fence line. When Braun asked what the stakes were for, the surveyors said they were doing an archaeological study of the area, one of the requisite steps in preparing the site for a new cell tower.
Another neighbor discovered the surveyors the same day, prompting further investigation that yielded no more than a small public notice posted June 29 in the Bandera County Courier. The notice listed a July 31 deadline to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) raising objections to the tower, and a webpage where such a petition could be filed, which yielded an invalid page on the FCC website.
Over the next nine days, Braun enlisted the help of his neighbors, including full-time and part-time residents, some new to the region and some with family property dating back two centuries. By the last day of July, 15 residents submitted Requests for Environmental Review with the FCC.
The requests were based on evidence that the proposed site for the tower, just south of Vanderpool near the pristine Sabinal River and about 3.5 miles from the Lost Maples State Natural Area, was uniquely unsuited for such a structure. Given the faulty web address for petitions on the FCC’s website, the surrounding landowners also asked that the review submission period be extended.
The FCC has not yet responded. Attempts by both local residents and the company constructing the tower, Branch Towers, to find another spot for the tower have been unsuccessful so far.
The region is a rare one of unmarred natural beauty, a habitat and migration route for two endangered bird species, and a cherished stargazing spot. Locals objected that the planned 260-foot tower, secured with piers sunk deep into a ground prone to flooding and replete with subterranean springs, would disrupt the delicate ecosystem. A blinking light atop the tower would cause light pollution, neighbors said.
Some property owners adjacent to the tower site plan to construct single-family homes.
Other concerns include the safety of five private airstrips nearby and several houses located less than 250 feet from the tower in the so-called fall zone, the dangers of flooding or potential mishaps with a diesel-powered backup generator, and the financial impact on tourism revenues and property values.
“People came here to get away from technology,” local resident Jada Baker said.
They are not, resident Roger Gray clarified, objecting to cell towers in general, nor trying to block this particular tower entirely, but merely hoping to move it to a more suitable place.
“We are devastated by this choice of location and asking that due diligence be done in locating this tower away from residences, the protected Sabinal River, and the precious ecosystem of the Lost Maples Natural Area,” said landowner Caroline Royall, who coincidentally also owns property adjacent to the controversial Colonial Hills United Methodist Church cell tower site in San Antonio. Verizon has since withdrawn its request for a zoning change that would allow the tower, shaped like a cross, to be built.
The current site is located on private property, which tax records indicate is owned by Dennis and Ada Gazaway, and would operate under a long-term lease. Bandera County Commissioner Jordan Rutherford, who represents the precinct in which the proposed tower site is located, suggested that property rights are at the crux of the dispute. Rutherford himself has a cell tower on his property and is aware of others coming to the region.
Jared Ledet, chief operating officer of Oklahoma-based Branch Towers, told the Rivard Report that the company is continuing to assess the property and listen to the community’s concerns. He said that Branch Towers has met all local, state, and federal requirements for the site. The tower’s tenant would be cellular service provider T-Mobile.
“Our goal is to provide quality coverage for the community, and we’re trying to accommodate as many people as possible,” Ledet said. He said he plans to visit the property this week.
The Rivard Report made repeated attempts to contact the property owners but was unable to reach them for comment.
Beyond appeals to Branch, the property owner, and the FCC, there’s little else locals can do. On July 27, they appeared before the Bandera County Commissioners Court. Emotions ran high as residents spoke for nearly two hours, after which the commissioners, headed by County Judge Richard Evans, unanimously passed a resolution to support the residents’ rights to petition the FCC to more thoroughly assess the environmental impact of the proposed tower.
However, as Gray pointed out, local authorities have no legal rights regarding the placement of cell towers. Indeed, Bandera County could be sued for interference under FCC guidelines.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 outlines different regulations for urban and rural areas, distinguished by a population threshold of 1.8 million people. While a posted notice is required for planned cell towers in urban areas, no such warning is required in rural counties.
“We would have never known about the tower if we hadn’t happened to observe the survey crew,” said Braun, emphasizing that the structure could be built in as little as a month.
Baker has created an online petition urging T-Mobile to “protect the environmentally sensitive Lost Maples Region of Texas.” Signees include D. Kagay from Elgin, Texas, who wrote: “Public views are public space, and the public should have a say.” Another person who signed the petition, Barbara Baetz of Vanderpool, pointed out that the National Park Service lists the Sabinal River as possessing “outstandingly remarkable” values of more than just local or regional significance.
“In a way,” Baker said, “this event has been such a blessing in uniting both neighbors and visitors. We all believe in the exceptional beauty of this area.”
Whether or not the FCC agrees remains to be seen.