Looking for answers: Grand Junction man sues over belfry/cell tower zoning issue | PostIndependent.com

Looking for answers: Grand Junction man sues over belfry/cell tower zoning issue

Sharon Sullivan
Monument Baptist Church, 486 23 Road, is hosting a cell tower inside a new belfry — to the consternation of its neighbor to the north. The belfry/cell tower is located on the northwest side of the church.
Sharon Sullivan/ssullivan@gjfreepress.com | Free Press


Cell phone towers include electronic equipment and antennas that receive and transmit radio-frequency signals. They can be free-standing, or mounted on existing structures such as trees, water tanks or inside church belfries. Cell phones communicate with nearby cell towers mainly through RF waves, a form of energy and non-ionizing radiation.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Services website states that although early studies suggested an association between EMF exposure and all forms of childhood cancer, those initial findings have not been confirmed by other studies. According to the institute, studies indicate “no association between EMF exposure and childhood cancers other than leukemia.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has stated “Exposure to radio frequency radiation has climbed rapidly with the advent of cell phones and other wireless technologies.” The site also states that studies have found RF and electromagnetic fields to be “potential carcinogens,” but the data linking RF and EMF to cancer is not conclusive.

For more information on FR exposure, visit http://www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety or http://www.fcc.gov/consumer-governmental-affairs-bureau.

— Sharon Sullivan, Free Press staff writer

Hank Drake says he’s been “stonewalled” by Mesa County.

And so now the county is defending itself against a lawsuit; a case that Mesa County attorney Lyle Dechant chose to outsource to Grand Junction attorney Alan Hassler. As of Jan. 1, 2014, the county has paid Hassler, who took the case in April, more than $40,000.

The lawsuit concerns what some residents see as a land-use code violation, and the county’s lack of response to constituents’ request for a meeting to discuss the issue.

Drake and his wife Judy, and several of their neighbors, were surprised to learn last winter of plans for a cell tower inside a new belfry at Monument Baptist Church, 486 23 Road, next door to the Drakes’ home.

Drake and another neighbor with property abutting the church’s said they never received notice of the project and that telecommunication facilities are prohibited in their zoned neighborhood, according to their interpretation of the land use code. Planning director Linda Dannenberger declined by phone to comment for this story on the advice of the county attorney.

Seeking an explanation as to why the telecommunication facility was approved in a neighborhood where it appears to be prohibited according to the Mesa County Land Use matrix, Drake said he and a dozen of his neighbors tried repeatedly to meet with the Mesa County Board of Commission.

Dechant indicated to the Free Press that commissioners did respond to a request for a meeting. He shared a copy of a letter that he said was emailed to Drake and another abutting property owner, Willard Pease, Jr. The letter states “we find that we are not able to meet with you regarding this specific issue since the site plan was approved almost one year ago and the matter is now closed.”

Both Drake and Pease said they never received the email.

Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said he couldn’t recall a request for a meeting. Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she couldn’t comment for this story due to the pending litigation. Commissioner John Justman said, “We went through all that last spring. If the county had violated code, that would have been pointed out to us — that was not the case.”

Drake filed a lawsuit in March 2013 against the county, Monument Baptist Church, and Verizon Wireless. He said he’s not suing the county for money damages — he only wants the cell tower removed as he believes it violates county code and no one in county government has explained to him why or how it was allowed.


Before construction began at Monument Baptist Church, a neighbor asked Drake if he’d heard about a possible cell tower going up on the church property. Verizon has cut deals with churches nationwide to allow cell towers to be built inside belfries, where they are camouflaged.

While some people are concerned about radiation exposure from the antennas, others see cell towers as visually offensive — hence the belfry disguise.

Drake said when he asked Monument Baptist pastor Ray Shirley if a cell tower was being installed, he was told there were no plans at that time and that if things changed he would let him know.

Then in December of 2012, Drake noticed a backhoe operator breaking ground on church property.

Shirley told the Free Press that although he’d signed the paperwork authorizing Verizon to build the telecommunication facility, and “knew it could still happen, he didn’t know if or when” that would take place.

The Drakes, both 72 and retired, built their adobe “dream home” four years ago. There’s a huge tree house in the yard where their grand-kids play. Their son and his family had planned to build a home on the one-acre lot as well. That plan has been scrapped due to concerns about radiation exposure from the radio frequency antennas 74 feet from the Drake’s property.

Shirley dismissed those health concerns last year, saying “We trust our government agencies militarily, with our retirement, health care, so why wouldn’t we trust them for this?”

Licensed real estate appraiser Jill Cross, who lives nearby, said she sympathizes with the Drakes because living next door to a cell tower impacts the home’s value.

“I’m disappointed in the church,” Cross said. “My main issue is I don’t think churches should be tax-exempt and then be allowed to have an income. They’re profiting from the Verizon cell tower.”

As to why a tower is needed in that location, Verizon Wireless responded in an email to the Free Press, “The site is needed to keep pace with the growing demand for wireless service from customers including public safety and first responders.”

As far as what Verizon pays churches to host telecommunication facilities, Verizon said: “We don’t disclose them (lease rates) publicly.”


The land use matrix (Table 5.1) of the land development code shows a blank space regarding telecommunication facilities in an RSF4 residential zoned area, which typically indicates it’s not a permitted use.

“How can you build it when it’s prohibited?” Drake’s attorney Dan Wilson asked. “Once you look into it, how can anyone get past the matrix?

“Even today, all we’re asking is for the commissioners to listen to citizens in a public forum and explain why they won’t fix this. Nobody is doing the right thing. Hank and Judy have this monstrosity next door dressed up quite nicely as a belfry.”

The Drakes and their attorney contend that not only is the telecommunication facility prohibited in the first place, other code provisions were not followed as well.

For instance, the code states: “The applicant shall provide evidence of written notice of a proposed tower or telecommunication facility to all abutting property owners within four times the distance that the tower or facility is tall, or 500 feet, whichever is greater.”

Neither Drake or Pease said they received notice from Verizon or the planning department regarding the project.

The code also states that “telecommunication facilities and towers shall be set back from all residentially zoned or used property by a minimum of 200 feet, or 200 percent of the height of the proposed tower or facility, whichever is greater.”

The site is 75 feet from the Drakes’ property.

A signed affidavit by the county planning director indicates she approved the project as a “minor site plan” and thus, no written notice or minimum set-backs were required. Dannenberger was unavailable to explain why the project was declared a “minor site plan.”

A trial will be set later to settle the issue, unless District Judge Valerie Robison decides to issue a summary judgment on the case.

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