By Greg Nesteroff – Nelson Star
Published: February 28, 2013 1:00 PM Updated: February 28, 2013 7:24 PM

A Telus representative has pledged to hold a public meeting on a controversial cell phone tower proposed for private land in the Slocan Valley.

Doug Anastos, real estate and government affairs manager for the telecommunications company, appeared today before the Regional District of Central Kootenay board.

He said the tower at Winlaw is part of a 10-year, $650 million agreement with the provincial government to provide continuous cell coverage to 1,700 km worth of highways where there is none, including Highway 6. Service is currently limited to South Slocan, New Denver, and Nakusp.

“The main benefit is public safety along the province’s highway corridors,” Anastos said. Although he has given the same presentation to 12 other regional districts in BC, he said Central Kootenay stands to benefit most. “We’re planning more sites and more capital investment in this regional district than any other.”

It’s expected to require up to ten towers to cover the entire valley, each costing $500,000 or more. They are subject to both Industry Canada and provincial public consultation, due to their height. Anastos said the company hopes to have the project completed by mid-2016 and a side benefit would be an expanded network and additional wireless services.

While most of Telus’ towers are in remote areas on Crown land, in this case they are negotiating with a Wishloff Road property owner. Anastos, who called it a “unique” situation, said their engineers have identified it as a suitable site.

However, about 15 residents with concerns about electro-magnetic frequency radiation remained skeptical following the presentation, wondering why Telus can’t piggyback on existing TV and Internet infrastructure.

Craig Stowell, an engineer and Winlaw resident who has studied the issue, said he accepts cell coverage is coming to the area, but suggested the tower belongs on a mountaintop.

“Although some want cell phones and some are absolutely against it, the writing is on the wall that cell service is coming,” Stowell said. “But we want to work with Telus to push the towers away from people … We don’t think it’s too much to ask to go up high.”

Anastos said Telus engineers have looked at existing towers, and can use some, but others won’t provide the necessary highway coverage, despite their height. “Obstacles get in the way of the signal and gaps are created,” he said. “But if there are other locations for towers, it is something we will consider.”

Stowell asked why public consultation didn’t begin before Telus began looking at a private site and suggested paying certain landowners to host cell towers could be divisive in the community.

He also said Industry Canada won’t let him raise safety code objections or consider property devaluation that might result from the tower. “We have 20 people within 600 m of this tower and I can’t even bring that up? In our opinion, the public consultation process is being completely subverted.”

Anastos, who met with residents for a half hour Thursday, committed to holding a public meeting in Winlaw where Telus engineers could further explain the proposal. It’s not clear when that will take place, but Slocan Valley regional district director Walter Popoff hopes it will let many more questions be answered.

“If [the tower] is located close to the schools and population, it is a valid concern and has to be addressed,” Popoff said. “I believe Telus should make every effort to locate those towers away from nodes of population.”

He said while the Winlaw tower is of chief concern due to its proposed location on private land, residents would also like to know where the other towers will go. Popoff is a retired Telus employee but did not work on wireless projects.

Telus is also asking the regional district to support a Crown land telecom policy that would eliminate redundancies between provincial and federal regulatory planning and speed up the process of establishing cell towers. Ten other regional districts have already adopted it, but Popoff said they want more discussions with Telus first.