The Astoria City Council agreed to turn over operations of the Astoria Column to its supporting organization Monday night, a stark contrast from a 2012 city goal to take the Column back into city control.

But a proposal, after five years of work from Astoria Police Deputy Chief Brad Johnston, to reconstruct the communications tower on Coxcomb Hill was an issue on which the council was not as aligned, split over whether improved public safety communications – and subsequently Verizon cell and data service – was more important to the citizens of Astoria than views from the Column.

“Having lived through the 2007 storm where we were really cut off from everything and we did not have emergency services,” Councilwoman Arline LaMear said, “it seems to me that that is much more important than what it looks like up there. I hope they can do something that can make it look not too bad, but on the other hand, public safety to me is more important than having it look positively pristine up there.”

The Friends of the Astoria Column have been a partner with the city for 27 years and have raised more than $3 million for the Column’s restoration.

Now, with more restoration on the horizon for spring 2014, president of the Friends group Jordan Schnitzer proposed several new plans to the council on what the Friends could do to make the landmark site better, and the city obliged. Those plans included the possibility of removing some trees from the eastern side of the property, which currently hide a cell tower.

Moments later, Johnston presented on the revamped and more technologically sound monopole that would replace the current lattice-style tower. Although it stands out as a tower, it would be less visible when painted to blend in with the background, Johnston said.

But with Schnitzer’s proposal to remove the trees, council and audience members were in shock, words used by Councilman Drew Herzig, with many proposing the city look elsewhere to place the monopole.

“I know how critical emergency communication is, but I think we’re all in a bit of shock here,” Herzig said. “I think we should really explore any possibility before putting a monopole up like this at the Column, particularly with the great offer the Friends of the Column have made to us to really look at large scale and make it not just the soul but the jewel of Astoria. And I know I am putting you in a very tough position saying we don’t want something that you absolutely need, but hopefully we can find another location for this or a series of locations.”

An audience member suggested the Skyline area above a city reservoir. Another suggested moving the tower to the east where the trees are blown down.

“We looked at a new site and did some extensive testing there but Verizon refuses to move over there,” Johnston said, adding, “They could not run fast enough away from that site.”

The blow-down site, however, may work for city communications. So the question became whether to leave Verizon in the dust, after their five-year contract expires in 2016.

Schnitzer said if that were to be the case, he was in favor of the Friends assisting the city in developing their own tower elsewhere. That cost was estimated to be more than $500,000.

“I agree, we all agree, it’s not pretty,” Police Chief Pete Curzon said of the proposed monopole. “But the bottom line is we can’t afford to wait five years, we can’t afford $500,000 to $750,000 – and that’s just a guesstimate on our part to get power up there and a road, and everything you need to improve that site, and that’s not a given. But what is a given is that we can make some dramatic improvements to the security and the safety of the citizens by working in cooperation with Verizon, like it or not. So we just have to keep that in mind.”

Mayor Willis Van Dusen said the tower didn’t bother him.

“The tower doesn’t bother me that much,” Mayor Willis Van Dusen said. “My priority up there at the Astoria Column would be public safety for police and fire. Not cell phone service.

“If you are OK with the other location,” Van Dusen said to Johnston, “I think that should be the City Council’s priority, more than helping a private company get good cell phone service.”

Column improvements

The Column will be in need of some repair work next Spring, Schnitzer told the Council.

Frank Preusser, the Column’s conservator for the last 20 years, recently performed an evaluation on the Column and discovered there were several areas that have deteriorated since the Column was restored 15 years ago. Water-repellent coating had been applied seven years ago, but there are areas, such as the medallions that tell the story on the Column, where restoration is needed, that will likely take four months of crew work, as well as scaffolding.

“All of us on the board really want to continue doing this right and need to tackle that,” Schnitzer said.

Those repairs are expected to cost $500,000.

In anticipation of that work, Schnitzer proposed the Friends of the Astoria Column’s plan for the site once it falls under their control. The plan includes several options of exploration, like automating the entrance to the Column to “capture” parking fees, currently set at $1 per year.

Schnitzer also proposed offering a free pass to locals.

Parking currently brings in $25,000 a year for the city. In the proposal, the city and the Friends would split that revenue, which will be higher, Schnitzer estimated, if the parking fee was enforced.

The plan also includes reconstructing the restrooms – which were only meant to be temporary – and the caretaker home, hiring a “caretaking couple” to live in it and assist in operations and maintenance. That couple would replace all existing staff, including Paula Bue, who was in the audience Monday night.

Bue was applauded for her more than 11 years at the Column Gift Shop. She provided Schnitzer with a suggestion for a caretaker couple, he told the council, and Schnitzer has already interviewed the two, a Coast Guard family, looking to retire in Astoria.

The current caretaker home is not in good condition, Schnitzer said, so a draft of what a caretaker home could look like, with wooden shingle siding and a robin’s egg blue front door, was presented to the council. Another possibility would be to add a covered picnic area to better host visitors during wet weather.

Schnitzer said one of the first items on the agenda will be to discuss a maintenance plan with the city staff.

“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “But we’d like to step it up a little more and work with the city first to see whether they can come up with a scope of work that makes sense and have them come back to us with a cost of maintaining it at the level we’d like to maintain it.”

He later added, “We’ve been the most efficient nonprofit in the state. We’ve got a nice endowment, we’re in the black every year,” Schnitzer said. “But we’re not trying to be a bank. The point is we have these revenues, let’s use them to serve the community and the visitors.”

The goal is to open the sight lines all around the Column to allow for 360-degree views.

That includes removing the trees that Johnston was betting on to disguise the monopole.

Cell tower

Verizon leases a space on the cell tower on Coxcomb Hill for around $12,000 a year, Johnston told the council, explaining how the tower came to be in 1989 after the city took leadership of a hodge-podge of antennas and poles.

“In 1996, the city was approached by a company called GTE Mobile, which is now totally owned by Verizon, and bringing cellular to Astoria, they offered to upgrade that tower, add 20 feet to the top of that tower, and return ownership of that tower back over to the city,” Johnston explained. “In exchange for that, we reduced their amount considerably that they pay the city over the last 30 years and they have maintained as good tenants there.”

Now, however, with the growth cell and data service has seen since 1996, there are issues that need to be addressed for both the city and Verizon.

Trees growing near the tower are a risk, Johnston said. The tower is also overloaded.

“Particularly there is one tree just to the west of it that has a gravel parking lot put over the top of the exposed roots. We’ve been told by the arborist that that has killed the roots of that tree,” he said. “It’s not an ‘if’ it’s going to be a problem. It’s a ‘when.’ ... What brings us to this opportunity, actually, is that the tower is way over capacity and can’t be upgraded.”

Structurally, Johnston added, the tower is “well past” where it should be, supporting public safety communications, Verizon, Pacific Power and Light, Northwest Natural Gas, Columbia Memorial Hospital and USA Mobility.

It’s a variety of tenants, Johnston said, and Verizon wants to improve it. They came to the city several years ago to add panels to the top of the tower, but structurally it is not safe to support that addition. A new monopole is their only hope on that site. A monopine – a tower shaped like a tree – was once proposed, as were many of what Johnston calls “bad ideas,” but this was the first brought seriously to council.

In the proposal, the tower would move more into the healthier trees on the site, with the dying tree removed, and be owned by Verizon, who would lease the property and access from the city. It won’t be pretty, though.

“It’s going to put our ugly right out on our front porch,” Johnston said. “It’s still a cell tower, but we can at least try to blend it in.”

And that’s if the trees remain standing.

“I don’t want to ignite a battle about cutting trees,” Schnitzer said. “But what I was saying earlier is that the views this way are gorgeous. They’re fabulous. If I had my druthers, we’d bring in the right expert to know how to thin this ... I just think this is a terrible rock and a hard place.”

Aside from Verizon bringing 4G to the area, the city of Astoria’s emergency communications needs the tower to help sustain transmissions during another event like the 2007 storm.

During that storm, the tower stopped working for a period of time, after the generator shut down because of an oil sensor that went out.

“We’ve done a good job of spreading out those resources so we’re not as vulnerable there,” Johnston said of the storm. “But that is still a very critical piece of communications infrastructure for us.”

Johnston said he knows the Column is not the best place to have a communications center. He said if one were being planned today, the Column is not where the city would go first. But no other city-owned sites will work as well as the Column site works now.

City Manager Paul Benoit said he would direct staff to begin discussing other options with Verizon once again.

“We may be back to council with a very difficult decision,” Benoit said.

LaMear said seeing the cell towers didn’t bother her.

She said, “I think they’re just a part of our life.”

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