Fear of red-colored lights inspire vote against growth

Over concerns that a new cell tower by Old Spanish Trail Arena would be unsightly, the Grand County Commission voted to terminate lease agreement signed in 2019 that would have improved cell coverage for over 1,000 Spanish Valley residents.

The vote reversed course of the previous county commission that signed the lease agreement in October 2019 by a 6-1 vote. The vote Tuesday night, July 20, to terminate the lease was 6-0-1, with Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann abstaining.

In 2019, InSite Wireless Group, the company behind the proposal, brought a study to the county showing the benefits a new cell tower would bring the area. Their most recent estimates, combined with 2010 Census data, suggest at least 1,000 local residents would see more reliable cellular service.

On their third appearance before the county in 2019, Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan told Tierney Rowe, the director of tower development in the region, that the analysis the company provided would need a signature by an engineer to meet county codes.

With the engineering signature now met in 2021, the county’s opposition to the project turned to lighting the tower.

I’m pretty sure, looking at our land use code, we would not allow a light on the tower. We don’t make exceptions for towers, so to me, a tower this tall in this location just seems inappropriate.

Kevin Walker, Grand County commissioner; July 20, 2021

Walker later cited light pollution and the city’s dark skies efforts in his opposition, but the Federal Aviation Administration calls for lighted cell towers to have red rather than white lights, which would mitigate contributions to light pollution in the valley.

Grand County Commissioner Sarah Stock also spoke against the tower during the meeting, incorrectly saying that it would be the tallest one in the vicinity and 50 feet taller than the next tallest one.

I think that the company can coime back to us with a better proposal, with a shorter tower, and I would be happy to put a shorter tower.

Grand County Commissioner Sarah Stock

A 180-foot lighted towers stands just less than five miles southeast of the proposed one, and its top is 5,260 feet in elevation, over 500 feet higher in elevation than the proposed tower. The taller tower does not provide cellular services.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires red lights at the top of structures like the ones in question for aircraft safety. County officials were not certain during the Tuesday meeting whether those requirements extended to the proposed 130-foot tower.

If the proposed tower did require lighting, perhaps because of its vicinity to Sky Ranch, it would be roughly 3% as bright as the light required on the 180-foot tower, per FAA regulations.

The 180-foot tower has a flashing red light visible at night from the valley overlook just above the Community Recycling Center on Sand Flats Road. The steady red lights on the cell tower behind the Emergency Operations Center off Highway 191, closer to town, are also visible from the overlook.

Grand County IT Director Matt Ceniceros spoke during the meeting Tuesday to say that he believed the analysis provided by TeleMtn Engineering. He also said that anecdotes Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin provided — she said cell service in parts of Spanish Valley were fine — were not representative of the larger area.

Trish, I’m glad you’re of a small percentage who get half-decent cell coverage out there, but right now, for the majority of people I talk to and deal with, including vendors and operations […] the cell phone coverage at the south end of the valley is severely lacking.

Grand County IT Director Matt Ceniceros

Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin later responded to say that, even if there were areas plagued by poor coverage, there would be a better solution to that than the proposed cell tower.

I’ve lived in Spanish Valley my entire time in Moab — 20 years — I’ve never had difficulty with cell service, but I don’t live inside OSTA, and I’m not within that compound when Jeep Safari is going on. I’m sure there are issues, but I think we can find a better resolution than this specific tower.

Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin

Angie Book, the director of the arena, said earlier in the meeting that cell service struggles in the arena during vendor events, when load on the cell towers serving the arena increases signficantly due to demand. A new cell centered behind the building would spread that network load over an additional tower.

It was not the first time that the county voted against the cell tower. Before its 6-1 approval in October 2019, the commission voted 3-3 on the matter, delaying the project. Commissioners changed their minds after hearing information about improvements to emergency response systems and internet coverage in the area.

Terry Morse, who was on the Grand County Council at the time, was among those who switched votes.

“In rethinking this in subsequent days, I think that the health, safety and welfare issues are predominantly more important than the other issues,” Morse said at the time.