Tofino isn’t sure the potential good created by a new cell tower would outweigh the potential harm of impacted views and radiofrequency exposure.
Telus wants to spend roughly $400,000 to erect a new 40-metre cell tower on privately owned land at 1440 Pacific Rim Highway, but Tofino’s municipal council declined to endorse that idea during their last regular meeting of 2017.
Telus’ Land Use Consultant Brian Gregg gave a presentation to council on Dec. 14, which he hoped would lead to a motion that stated council was satisfied with Telus’ consultation process and that the new cell towers location were acceptable. Instead, he was asked to return to council chambers in the New Year better prepared to address local concerns around location options and radio frequency exposure.
Gregg said the new tower is needed to boost network reliability and data input speeds as the company’s only other tower in town is no longer able to handle the demand put on it, especially during the community’s busy summer months.
“The reason we’re proposing it here is because there’s a real problem and the engineering team has identified it as one of our worst performing sites,” he said. “If the service was good we would not be proposing this.”
He said the company’s consultation process included notifying roughly 60 nearby property owners, 18 of whom provided feedback with 11 expressing opposition to the project, five supporting it, and two being neutral.
He said the two main reasons given for opposition were the tower’s potential visual impact and potential exposure to high radio frequency levels.
He suggested any concerns around radio frequency exposure should be directed to Health Canada as the tower would operate at 0.62 per cent of the safety limit outlined in Health Canada’s Radiofrequency Exposure Guidelines.
“While it may seem counterintuitive, having a low-powered site closer to where you’re living actually enables your device to operate at a lower power and is arguably safer than trying to connect to a tower that might be 20 or 30 kilometres down the road,” he said.
In terms of visibility, he assured the tower would not need any lights or markers, according to Nav Canada, and that the proposed site was as far away from town as it could possibly be while still being able to resolve Telus’ network capacity issues.
Prior to Gregg’s presentation, council heard from several locals who raised concerns about the potential project as well as a petition with roughly 200 signatures that opposed the tower being erected at the proposed site.
Coun. Greg Blanchette asked what the ramifications would be if council did not endorse Telus’ project. Gregg suggested Telus wouldn’t force the $400,000 project onto the community and would, instead, spend that money elsewhere.
“For all intents and purposes, if we don’t win your support, I think it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see that investment in the infrastructure,” he said. “If you were to reject us and tell us to go look at other options, it puts the whole thing into a lot of uncertainty.”
Coun. Al Anderson said he struggled with the idea of endorsing a project that had received so much opposition from community members and Mayor Josie Osborne said more information, and conversations with Telus, would be needed for council to make its decision.
“Welcome to Tofino,” she said to Gregg. “This is obviously a place where people deeply deeply care about certain things and I think that a lot of very interesting and valid questions and concerns have come up.”
Coun. Cathy Thicke expressed concern over Telus only offering one potential site for the tower and Coun. Dorothy Baert questioned whether the company had done their homework.
“Do you really understand why people buy property here?…Our nature defines a lot about how people regard this place and why they choose to live here,” she said. “I don’t feel satisfied that Telus has really been rigorous enough.”
Council agreed to put their concerns in an email to send to Telus and invite the company back for another presentation in the New Year.
After the meeting, Telus spokesperson Liz Sauve told the Westerly News the company would present to council again in early 2018.
“Council has asked us for some more information, and as soon as we receive their questions we’ll provide them with all of the information they need to make a decision,” she said. “We’d really like to enhance service in this area, and we’re hoping to come to an agreement with council early next year so that we can make this investment in Tofino.”
She said the proposed new tower would boost current coverage and provide new coverage in areas around the southern part of town where there is currently little to none. She added the new tower would also “enable emergency calls to 911 for any cell phone user, regardless of the users cell phone provider.”
“Our existing site in the community is struggling to keep up with the growing demand as more and more people are relying on a wireless signal,” she said. “As a result, customers are experiencing slow download speeds and in some cases, dropped calls.”