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Planning Commission OKs HPP cell tower permits

The Windward Planning Commission on Thursday approved permits for a controversial cell tower in Hawaiian Paradise Park after a September court order to reconsider a previous decision to deny the permits.

Late last year, global telecommunications company AT&T filed proposals to build a pair of cell towers — one in Kurtistown and one in HPP — in order to fill gaps in coverage within Puna. Those proposals, which met with considerable public backlash, were discussed by the Windward Planning Commission earlier this year.

The commission voted to approve the Kurtistown tower in June, but denied the HPP tower because of concerns about a playground within its fall radius, as well as questions about whether AT&T had legal access to the property.

However, following that decision, AT&T filed a lawsuit against Hawaii County in federal court in July, arguing that the 105-foot tower’s fall radius only intersected a corner of the playground’s basketball court — and also that the commission failed to provide evidence that the tower was at risk of falling.

The lawsuit also pointed out that AT&T had secured a signed letter of authorization from the HPP Owners Association.

On Sept. 1, a U.S. District Court judge stayed the commission’s action denying the permit, bringing the matter back before the commission.

On Thursday, AT&T site acquisition specialist Andrew Tomlinson returned to the commission with a revised proposal for the HPP tower, one which shifted the tower 13 feet and 2 inches north and east, moving all parts of the playground outside of the tower’s fall radius.

With those changes in place, the commission voted to approve the permits, although Commissioner John Replogle suggested, based on a suggestion by a public testifier, that Hawaii County or AT&T subject the tower to regular tests to ensure it poses no health risks to the public, in the interest of setting the public’s minds at ease. However, no part of that suggestion was reflected in the final motion.

Even though the meeting was held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no shortage of public testimony criticizing the project.

Kapaau resident Naomi Melamed said the tower, although it will be somewhat camouflaged to appear as a pine tree, will adversely affect the character of the neighborhood.

“I did not see proof of gaps of coverage … or records of dropped calls,” Melamed said. “I do believe it would be prudent for the Planning Commission to demand the hard data here.”

Another testifier, Eugene Elmer, specifically criticized Planning Director Michael Yee, calling him “a disgrace to (his) position” for not exercising his authority to prevent harm to the community.

“If you do not protect us from the towers and the harm that they cause … if you believe in a god at the end of this life, you will not be seeing Heaven,” Elmer concluded.

Other testifiers expressed health concerns tied to the radiation generated by cell towers, while one called the continued buildout of 5G technology — the fifth generation standard for telecommunications technology — a “weapon” to be utilized in an undefined war.

Tomlinson later pointed out that neither the HPP tower nor the Kurtistown tower are actually 5G towers, but 4G.

Not all testimony was negative.

Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief Kazuo Todd and the Hawaii Police Department’s Hamakua commander Andrew Burian both agreed that improving connectivity in Puna will help improve the response rates for emergency services in the area, protecting both officers and residents.

Another testifier, Jennifer Myers, pointed out that Thursday’s online commission meeting would not have been possible without the current buildout of communications technology, and said the continued evolution of such technology is vital for the community, particularly during a pandemic that requires people to communicate remotely as much as possible.

“I think we need to advance as much as we can,” Myers said. “I am in full support of these towers, and I don’t mind sharing my neighborhood with them.”

With the Commission approving the permit, AT&T can move forward with construction at its discretion.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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