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A home with a view ... and a tower

For years, Gene Halvorson has been planning exactly where his retirement home will be built: On top of a ridge that marks the highest point in probably 25 miles, less than a mile as the crow flies from his current home on Midway Road.

Home site
Midway Township resident Gene Halvorson, whose property abuts land owned by the city of Cloquet, points to the building site for his retirement home (where there's a dip in the treeline) and the spot where the city has leased land for a large public safety communications tower that is supposed to be erected this fall near another tower and only a couple of hundred yards from Halvorson's future home. Halvorson is hoping officials will reconsider and move the tower further from his home. So far, he hasn't ...

For years, Gene Halvorson has been planning exactly where his retirement home will be built: On top of a ridge that marks the highest point in probably 25 miles, less than a mile as the crow flies from his current home on Midway Road.

The autumn vista from the back wall of his already poured foundation is amazing, featuring fields and forest along with the Sappi paper mill off in the distance. The front door of his retirement home will look out on mostly birch woods, a small lawn ... and a large emergency radio tower, courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"We're neighbors," Halvorson, told the Cloquet City Council at its Oct. 15 meeting, explaining that he owns land west and south of the city-owned 40 acres and water tank off Midway Road, with little problem to date. "But the city is really screwing me over at this point. You've signed a lease allowing a 185-foot steel tower to go up next to your water tank, but that tower is going up less than 150 feet from my brand new house site."

The tower in question is not a cell tower. Rather, it will be part of a statewide Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) system, Minnesota's 800 megahertz shared public safety radio communication system, used by law enforcement, local government and other emergency response organizations so they all can communicate with one another.

There is already a cell tower on the city-owned property, a little further from Halvorson's land and lower down, so it doesn't stick up quite as far as the new tower will.

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City Administrator Brian Fritsinger said in an email to Halvorson after the council meeting that city officials thought township zoning laws would apply and explained that Cloquet has no zoning authority in the township.

ARMER Facilities and Contract Manager Shane Chatleain explained that the ARMER tower site was chosen specifically because of its proximity to the other tower.

"MnDOT tries to locate its new towers near existing towers so that it minimizes the proliferation of towers, especially in the environmentally sensitive areas like the Arrowhead," Chatleain said, explaining the tower is a vital link in the state's ARMER system and will be used by MnDOT, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, St. Louis and Carlton counties along with the [cities] of Duluth and Cloquet. Other public safety entities have the option to install equipment as well."

Chatleain also noted that Halvorson missed the Midway Township information meeting in July when MnDOT officials came to discuss the proposed tower and site.

Midway Township Zoning Administrator Grant Forsyth (who is also animal control officer, recycling administrator and general laborer for the township) said the township sent meeting notices to all the residents within a mile or half-mile of the tower site.

That would have been the time for the adjacent landowner to express his concerns about the tower location, Chatleain said.

Halvorson said he never got the letter and found out about the tower when he happened to attend the township's August meeting. Neighbor Gil Magnusen also said he never saw any notice. Another neighbor -- who asked not to be quoted -- said he thought he got one.

"It's news to me," Magnusen said when told of the proposed tower. "I don't recall getting any notice, but sometimes the wife and kids intercept the mail before I get home."

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Chatleain said only three residents attended the meeting, and none of them to discuss the tower. However, he noted, township officials took a vote in support of the tower, even though no vote was necessary because the ARMER towers don't have to comply with local zoning ordinances.

Forsyth remembers being surprised that Halvorson -- a former planning committee member -- wasn't at the meeting.

"I know we were surprised he wasn't there because it's right next to his property," he said, adding that if MnDOT had to follow the township's zoning code, the tower couldn't be located at that site.

As a former first responder, Forsyth said he is supportive of the ARMER tower system.

"One tower talks to another and so on," he said. "But there are dead spots. I remember responding to something on the Munger Trail, near Beck's Road, and we had to set up relays so we could communicate. It's a communications tool, a safety net for the highway patrol, the police, sheriff's department and local fire and police. It's really important to have good coverage."

However, as zoning administrator, he pointed out that the tower would not have been allowed at that location.

"We have setback requirements from towers being within a mile of each other," Forsyth said. "But they could have filed for a variance."

It's a moot point, however, because the towers aren't subject to local zoning ordinances, although they do have to get permits from other state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, said MnDOT spokeswoman Mary McFarland Brooks, adding that the proposed Midway Township tower has all the necessary permits.

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For his part, Halvorson said he isn't anti-tower, especially when it is vital to public safety. However, considering that he has already done the septic, electricity and foundation for his home and MnDOT hasn't even started building its tower, he is hoping the state agency will consider changing its site.

"My intention is to see if the state is willing to pick an alternative site, at least a little ways away and not right on top of my house," Halvorson said.

So far, he's struck out.

McFarland Brooks said Halvorson and Chatleain had a conversation Tuesday, and Chatleain explained that Halvorson's concerns about the tower possibly falling on his home are unfounded, because of the way the towers are designed.

"They don't topple like a tree, it folds in on itself," McFarland Brooks said, adding that Chatleain told her that their conversation eventually "exhausted itself" and ended with any resolution.

"I think moving it is out of the question," she said. "Money's been spent on an environmental assessment and permits; there is a contractor on board and they're ready to start building."

Halvorson -- a retired investigator for a Minneapolis law firm who is trying to sell his current home and build a his downsized dream retirement home -- is going to keep trying.

"I'm not anti-tower," he said. "But I do have a problem with the proximity. And I've wanted a home here ever since I first walked up this hill."

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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