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Delta throwback: Stopping the radio towers

The new transmission towers would have been located in very close proximity to a residential area of Tsawwassen
Concerned about electrical interference and health impacts, residents on both sides of the border fought for over two years, including arguing the application was fraudulent because a map submitted by the applicant left out Tsawwassen completely.

People power was on full display in Delta and Point Roberts.

Residents on both sides of the border of Point Roberts in 2013 voiced alarm about a plan to erect five large radio broadcast antennas in the U.S. peninsula.

Whatcom County at the time had been considering an application from BBC Broadcasting Inc. to construct the 150-foot steel towers at an undeveloped lot on McKenzie Way, just west of Tyee Drive in Point Roberts, WA.

It was in very close proximity to the border with Tsawwassen. The towers would have transmitted radio station KRPI, AM 1550, which broadcast from studios in Richmond.

The station had been broadcasting at 50,000 watts during the day using an antenna located in Ferndale. The company already completed a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) checklist for the project to comply with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

Several professional studies were also completed, including a visual resources report that concluded the visual impact should be minimal. Another report stated the towers do not appear to present a significant risk to birds.

The FCC the year prior granted a construction permit for the radio communication facility, but a conditional use permit was still required from the county.

The station wanted a stronger 50,000 watt all-day signal in the Lower Mainland

A report by the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services noted the department had reviewed the application for potential adverse impacts and expected to issue a “Determination of Non-Significance (DNS)” for the project.

A county hearing examiner had to also give a stamp of approval following a public hearing.

A comment period, open only for residents on the U.S. side of the border, had already wrapped up.

Arthur Reber, a member of the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee, told the Optimist at the time there was little notification. He said many in the community only just found out about the application.

“The mood of Point Roberts is, shall we say, the tar is boiling in the back and the folks with the feathers are plucking chickens to get ready for it. Others are building guillotines,” he said.

Noting the antennas had been problematic and hugely controversial in Ferndale, Reber said residents had many concerns, including the likelihood of the powerful signal wreaking havoc with other broadcast signals as well as electronic devices.

Reber said broadcast facilities may be seen as a necessary utility, however, the proposed antennas were for a Canadian radio station serving the Lower Mainland, and thus that infrastructure should have been located in Canada.

He said residents were planning a long fight, including a formal appeal to Whatcom County council if the application received approval.

Living just a few feet from the borderline, Tsawwassen resident Ralph Parker agreed there was little doubt residents on both sides of the border would be impacted by interference, including his Delta Amateur Radio Club.

“I thought what is it going to do with other residents, and it’s going to be a large interference issue,” he said. “It may be something that’s going to cause problems with the people at the border because being very close to all that huge amount of radio frequency energy, who knows what it will do to all their sensitive equipment on both sides of the border. On the Canadian side the other day, I asked them what they knew about it and they didn’t know anything.”

Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington at the time said it was difficult to expect Washington State officials to consider the impacts their decisions might have on individuals north of the border, and they had no obligation to do so.

The community on the Delta side of the border was quickly galvanized, organizing an advocacy group, meetings, gathering a petition with thousands of names as well as support where they could find it.

They were upset about the potential adverse effects, as well as the fact there was no mention of Tsawwassen, which had been left out of an application to construct the radio transmission towers just across the border.

The concerns submitted to the FCC included environmental, health as well as widespread “blanketing interference” of electrical devices

At a community meeting at South Delta Secondary, Concerned Citizens of Tsawwassen pointed to an engineering report as one example, a document that had Ladner as the only Canadian reference and failing to identify Tsawwassen and its population of more than 20,000 immediately north of the border.

Opponents, including guest speaker Milt Bowling, expressed a myriad of concerns, including potential health impacts as well as interference with frequencies and electronic equipment, issues they say made the towers hugely unpopular in Ferndale.

They also noted there was no public notification on this side of the border by either the FCC or the applicant.

Steve Graham, who emceed the meeting that also had Point Roberts residents in attendance, told the audience of roughly 200 that Industry Canada had to be convinced to urge the FCC to review the application, based on the glaring omission of Tsawwassen. He said once the towers were built, it would be too late.

Residents on both sides would form the Stop the Radio Towers Cross Border Coalition.

In a presentation to Delta council in 2014, MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay said she informed the foreign affairs minister of the community's concern, but many in the community at the time expected more.

Findlay later said she was encouraged that her office never received a complaint about an existing radio tower setup on 104th Street in East Ladner, however, residents pointed out those towers are far from residential areas.

At a town hall meeting in Tsawwassen that year, attended by hundreds, it was noted opponents were fighting on several fronts, including continuing to raise objections with Whatcom County and Industry Canada, as well as a formal petition and an informal objection filed with the FCC to deny the renewal of AM 1550’s broadcast licence in Ferndale.

Noting the application and strong signal would violate Industry Canada standards, the coalition’s Nancy Beaton pointed to how the entire community of Tsawwassen was deliberately left out of the application, shown as nothing more than empty white space on a submitted map. She also went over the myriad of interference problems Ferndale residents experienced.

Reber noted Findlay was given a detailed letter outlining the application’s flaws to hand over to MP James Moore, Minister of Industry Canada, but Moore had stayed silent.

The fight would drag on until 2015, when a Skagit County Superior Court judge dismissed an appeal by BBC Broadcasting Inc. to overturn a decision by Whatcom County to reject the company's application.

It was rejected because the towers exceeded height limits in the American peninsula.

The company filed a LUPA (Land Use Petition Act) appeal in Skagit County.

In Washington State, LUPA provides a direct judicial review of land use decisions. The company had argued the antenna would be a utility that would provide “vital public services” for Point Roberts.

The judge in her ruling listed several reasons to uphold the Whatcom County decision, including the fact there were alternative sites available in Whatcom County that don't have height restrictions.

Huntington said she was ecstatic for the coalition, adding it was an historic moment.

“The members have managed to do what is normally impossible: win against the powers that be by engaging in hard work and excellent analysis. And I thank all the members of the public who helped in the fundraising...very expensive lawyers were hired to help win this battle,” she said.

Beaton said, “There was no one magic pill or strategy that created this success, but lots of little items and actions by dedicated individuals and supporters that when added together made us victorious against this onerous injustice. Another huge relief to say the least.”