Oct. 22, 2016
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Signal Revolt

A wireless internet tower allegedly breaks city law, but its owner won’t back down

August 3, 2016, 12:00 am

The tower rises 80 feet, overlooking homes and businesses on Apache Street. To passersby, the structure might seem a harmless eyesore, a pillar of crossbeams better fit for an industrial park than a residential area. But the tower has become a source of neighborhood tension, pitting a local internet company against city officials.

When Albert Catanach looks at the tower, he sees an opportunity to grow his wireless internet business. His neighbor fears that the structure poses a potential threat to her home. Santa Fe officials say its mere existence represents a flagrant violation of city law and have filed a lawsuit in district court to stop Catanach from building further.

Catanach applied to install the structure in question on April 9, 2015, after two existing towers on the roof at NMSURF started running out of dish and antenna space. Since his customers depend on that equipment to get online, Catanach says he needs the new tower to grow his company.

Obtaining approval for the structure should have been quick and easy, Catanach says. He pointed to a federal regulation passed in 2012 that allows businesses to combine two or more telecommunications towers with little oversight, so long as the modification does not “substantially change” its dimensions (10 percent or 10 feet).

“Nothing is changing,” Catanach tells SFR. “The only thing that is changing is we are consolidating two towers. We’re getting rid of the all guy wires. We’re cleaning up, making it look nice.”

The city disagrees with Catanach’s claim that he is merely consolidating the equipment on his roof. Installing a new tower clearly represents a “substantial change,” according to assistant city attorney Zachary Shandler. The city maintains that Catanach should have put his project up for approval with the Planning Commission.

"Every other citizen who wants to build an addition to their house or put up a shed needs to go through the process."

“Every other citizen who wants to build an addition to their house or put up a shed needs to go through the process, and he needs to be treated the same as everybody else,” Shandler tells SFR.

There’s another problem. The city claims the new tower violates an ordinance that requires such structures to be as far from the nearest home as they are tall. NMSURF’s new tower is 80 feet tall, but only about 20 feet from the closest neighbor’s property line. Catanach counters that the modification, as he sees it, qualifies for “grandfather” protections, since his rooftop towers have been around for quite some time.

The clashing views reached a crescendo last month when Catanach erected his tower without the city’s permission. Andrea Cypress, who had previously expressed concerns to the city about NMSURF’s existing towers, saw the construction happening and alerted the city again.

Cypress would not speak with SFR on the record, but in a letter to city manager Bryan Snyder, she complained that this has been an ongoing dispute. Concerning the installation of the prior two towers last decade, she wrote, “I watched in fright from my living room window as a group of casual workmen attempted to stand up a tall horizontal structure that I later learned was a cell tower. They tried different ways as it swayed and swung in the air. Very scary. No success."

City inspectors visited Catanch the same day and asked for a permit. He said he didn’t need one. If the city disagreed, the business owner said, they could sue him.

Eight days later, Shandler filed a lawsuit in district court, asking a judge to force Catanach to desist all work on the tower and allow inspectors to check it out. If he does not comply, the city plans to file a separate case in municipal court, where judges don’t have injunctive relief powers but may impose fines.

Shandler says the city is paying close attention to this case after a similar case last year involving a telecommunications tower owned by Verizon Wireless on Agua Fría, which operated for years without a permit. The city’s Board of Adjustments allowed the company to obtain a permit if it paid hefty fines. A group of citizens, including Arthur Firstenberg, the man who famously and unsuccessfully sued his neighbor for using an iPhone and wireless internet, appealed that decision in district court. They lost, but only after a prolonged legal battle that the city is not eager to repeat.

Firstenberg, who has become one of the nation’s foremost advocates for an unrecognized medical condition called electromagnetic sensitivity, has not ignored Catanach’s tower. “It is disrespectful of neighbors,” Firstenberg tells SFR.

“What the city is doing, instead of working with us, is really disheartening,” Catanach retorts. “Really, when you think about it, we are expanding coverage and bringing broadband to the city and county. They’re trying to stop this from happening, when it benefits them.”

Catanach declined to tell SFR how many customers pay for his service, but says his system has the range to connect 50,000 homes, from Albuquerque to the southern tip of Tesuque.

He plans to challenge the city’s case in federal court.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misidentified which tower Andrea Cypress referred to when she "watched in fright" its installation. 


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