DuPont residents upset over communications tower placement

adam.ashton@thenewstribune.comNovember 18, 2013 

Mona Elson, left, and Mechelle Winder say they were blindsided by DuPont’s construction of a wireless communications tower in their neighborhood. Winder says she did not get a public notice about the tower’s construction.

ADAM ASHTON/STAFF WRITER

Mechelle Winder imagined herself living out the dream she shared with her husband when she bought a home in DuPont after he was killed in Iraq six years ago. That was what they planned to do together at the end of his tour with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group.

After his death, she carefully picked a house and settled into the small south Pierce County city when she bought a home near the summit of one of the city’s highest points.

“It just felt like I was building a home for us,” she said.

A new, 125-foot Pierce County emergency communications tower built just off her street has her rethinking her plans and wondering if the last big investment she planned to make in life is about to come down in value.

The tower is visible throughout the neighborhood, and it’s a dominant feature on the opposite side of Foreman Road from Winder’s home. She and her neighbors worry it will make their homes more difficult to sell or rent in the future.

“I can’t walk away,” she said, stressing that she’s committed to the life she wanted with the fallen Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Winder.

Mechelle Winder and several neighbors are preparing to press a legal claim against the city, which they say failed to notify them about plans to construct the radio tower for emergency responders.

Their attorney, Joan Mell, has been gathering records about the tower’s construction with a goal to somehow offset a potential loss in property values for her clients. She said the neighborhood is full of military families who might have missed public notices about the project and their opportunities to speak out against the tower.

“Military people are quiet because everybody’s got a security clearance and they want to be under the radar,” she said.

The tower is meant to fill a dark spot in the emergency dispatch network for city, county, police and fire services. The county and the city agreed on the site because it was high enough to guarantee clear radio communication from Interstate 5, over the hills and down to DuPont’s shoreline.

“That was the best spot,” said Tim Lenk, communications program manager for Pierce County Emergency Management.

Public records show the project started moving forward in May 2012, when the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management began looking at possible locations for a radio tower to enhance coverage for the new South Sound 911 agency.

The county submitted its first application for the project that July, and public hearings followed in September and October 2012 and February 2013.

The city says it delivered timely notices about the plan to 75 homeowners near the tower. The city issued a building permit in April, and it was finished this fall.

“From our perspective, the public notices and the requirements were met,” said City Administrator Ted Danek. “Pierce County applied for it correctly. They did our notices and we did ours.”

However, Winder and neighbor Robert Hayes said they did not get a notice.

“They didn’t have the courtesy to let us know,” Winder said.

A couple other neighbors said they saw a flier, but nothing that conveyed to them that the city would build a tower so close to their backyards.

It was described in public documents for DuPont’s Planning Agency and City Council as a “free standing public communication facility.” Planning documents describe the project as a 125-foot antenna.

“I had no idea it was going to be behind my house,” said Mona Elson, 47, who rented a home in the neighborhood when her husband was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing.

The tower sits on city-owned land that also contains a water tank. It overwhelms the view from Elson’s back window.

Hayes, a retired 1st Special Forces Group soldier who now works for Madigan Army Medical Center, said he invested some $16,000 into his backyard. It has terraces, a stone path and a meticulously plotted garden.

He’s Elson’s next-door neighbor, so the tower looms over his garden, too.

“It devalues our property,” said Hayes, 46.

Elson said she would have picked a different house if the tower was there when she signed her lease, a sentiment homeowners believe others would share.

“If we move, we can’t rent our property,” Winder, 44, said.

Another neighbor who did not want to be named in the newspaper said he attended a public hearing and did not get a sense from the discussion that the project would become so conspicuous. He left that meeting with an impression that the tower would be good for public safety. He’s not a fan of it now that he sees the final product.

The city has posted some of the public documents describing the path it took to building the tower on its website at ci.dupont.wa.us.

City and county officials maintain the radio tower meets an important public safety need.

“For decades this part of Pierce County and the city of DuPont has had really large holes in emergency communications,” Danek said. “This was nonexistent communication. They never had it.”

If the residents decide to follow through on a lawsuit, Mell’s next step will be to file a claim for damages with the city.

Winder’s husband was killed June 26, 2007. She bought her house in 2008 and has no regrets about settling near the medic’s final duty station.

“This is what I know. This is where I decided to be,” she said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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