Bald Mountain tower project active again

Larimer County and the U.S. Forest Service have revived the county’s application to build an emergency services radio tower on Middle Bald Mountain near Red Feather Lakes.

In January, the two entities completed an agreement that restarts the process to place a 60-foot tower, 100-square-foot utility building and a standby diesel generator on the 11,000-foot peak. The county will pay the Forest Service $106,350 to process the application. The fee includes an assessment of the environmental impacts of the project. The total cost of the project is estimated between $1.6 million and $4.2 million, depending on whether power lines to the tower are buried.

“We’ve reopened the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study that we started in 2006,” said Larimer County Undersheriff Bill Nelson. “We need to evaluate what data we have already collected and what we need to collect to put together a scope of work by May 1, for the summer field season.”

If the previously gathered environmental data is acceptable to the Forest Service, Nelson estimated the study could be completed within 12 months; if started from scratch, the process would take closer to two years. If the Forest Service approves the application, tower construction could be done in six to seven months, depending on when the application is OK’d.

“If we didn’t hear until June or July, we’d only have a couple of months of good weather, so we’d probably push it to the following summer,” Nelson said.

That’s a lot of ifs.

The county has been working on placing a communications tower in the mountainous area to improve law enforcement and public safety radio coverage in Poudre Canyon and around Red Feather Lakes for nearly a decade. The first proposed site on South Bald Mountain was denied by the Forest Service because it was in a designated roadless area.

The original NEPA study, begun in 2006, was put on hold by the county commissioners in 2008 because of budget constraints, after investing about $230,000. Additional engineering studies, including drive tests to measure simulated signal strength and reliability from the proposed tower site, were completed in 2009, at a cost of about $19,000. The county applied to the Federal Communications Commission for additional 800Mhz frequencies to use on Middle Bald and held talks with the Forest Service about reopening the application last year.

Although some of the data on hand will be used in the reopened application, public comment will be gathered as it was earlier, according to Nelson. Some local residents have vigorously opposed placing the tower on Middle Bald Mountain for its environmental and visual impact as well as economic reasons.

Another objection is that while the tower may improve emergency communications, it will do nothing to boost personal cellphone signals in the area. Nelson said the county is not looking to build anything beyond serving its own radio needs.

“I don’t know if the Forest Service would allow us to let a Verizon or a Sprint put their equipment on the tower,” he said. “They could ask, but I don’t know if we could say yes.”

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