Four new communications towers will be constructed throughout the peninsula to help expand internet access to rural communities following a unanimous Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly vote authorizing lease agreements on Tuesday.
The towers will be constructed in Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Cohoe and Bear Creek via lease agreements with SPITwSPOTS, Inc., an Alaska-based internet service provider. The original legislation included a tower in Tyonek, however the Borough Planning Commission recommended removing it from the agreement because the borough does not have a “clear title” to the land on which the tower would have been built.
The project will be funded via CARES Act money. The borough specifically allocated $1.2 to $2 million to improve public access to the internet through tower site development and infrastructure in June and awarded grants to SPITwSPOTS Inc. and Alaska Communication Services in August.
The project has faced some pushback from residents who live in proximity to the site at the Bear Creek Fire Station who say it will obstruct views and lower property values.
David and Sherie Fryxell, of Moose Pass, said the project feels “extremely rushed” and that the Bear Creek tower will be put directly in front of their house and a new bed and breakfast they are building. Because the tower will obstruct mountain views, they anticipate their bed and breakfast, which they said is part of their retirement plan, will suffer and their home value will decrease.
“We are sure that with more time Spit Spot will be able to find a new location that, while possible not on Borough property, will allow them to have more range and service for families while not negatively impacting them at the same time,” the letter says.
Rosie Patnode and Gryphon Stephens, who said they purchased a house near the Bear Creek site one month ago, also submitted a comment in opposition to the Bear Creek tower and asked the assembly to conduct an environmental impact survey ahead before approving the construction in order to see what consequences it would have on surrounding wildlife.
“If we had known there was a change this tower could be constructed and the risks it posed to our health and future family’s health we would never have bought our house,” the letter says. “We’ve saved for years to buy this home and invested so much time and funds into bettering our property just to have its value plummeted by the construction of this tower.”
Assembly President Kelly Cooper asked during the borough’s Tuesday Policies and Procedures Committee whether or not the assembly had enough time to be responsive to the concerns given the project’s accelerated timeline. Borough Land Management Officer Marcus Mueller said that the location of the towers is mostly the decision of SPITwSPOTS Inc., and that the borough’s responsibility arises when the locations the company chooses are on borough land.
“I just think about me sitting on my deck looking out at the bay and then poof! A tower,” Cooper said. “I would just be really frustrated, so I certainly understand their concerns.”
Borough IT Director Ben Hanson said that the selection of the Seward site was particularly difficult and that efforts were made to obscure the tower as much as possible.
“There definitely was an investigation done as far as other potential areas,” Hanson said. “When you look at that valley, part of the goal was to be able to see up towards Seward proper in terms of the coverage for radios and really if you move too much out of that position you end up just getting the bulk of the population blocked off by the mountainside.”
Access to the internet has been of special interest during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen many people work or take classes remotely. As of Oct. 16, 21 Kenai Peninsula School District schools were operating at high-risk level, meaning classes are conducted 100% remotely, including all schools on the eastern peninsula, which includes Seward and Moose Pass. Additionally, a district survey on Sept. 24 found that more than 20% of all students were enrolled in Connections, the district’s home-school program.
SPITwSPOTS Inc. has 15 days from when the ordinance was enacted to execute the lease agreements.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said it is the borough’s responsibility to make sure locations the company chooses is on borough land. The borough does not become responsible unless the company chooses land that the borough owns.