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December 11, 2013

Hams looking for taller towers in Roseville

By Kevin Bunch
C & G Staff Writer

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A ham radio operator runs a Morse code station during an Americas-wide amateur radio field day exercise in June, where ham radio operators from Canada to South America work their equipment off the power grid to prepare for emergencies.

ROSEVILLE — Local amateur radio operators, known colloquially as hams, want an exemption to Roseville’s height restriction on communications towers.

Around 30 hams filled Roseville City Hall Nov. 26 to propose an exemption to the City Council, as Roseville has an ordinance on the books that limits all communications towers to 25 feet — a height ham radio operators say is too short for their needs.

“If we want to have decent communication and reliable communication all over the world, as we do — because we’re not just restricted to Michigan and Roseville and the county, we’re everywhere — if you want to have reliable communications, you have to have height,” said Will Chesney, member of the Utica-Shelby Emergency Communications Association (USECA). “And because of the frequency we use, which is low — the HF band — those require big antennas. The higher they are, the more effective they are, and the less power we have to use to run them.”

Chesney said at the meeting that, years ago, cities countered the proliferation of cellphone towers by limiting them to 25 feet in height, but the ordinance also constrained ham radio towers. Last year, USECA and other local clubs started an effort to convince local communities to amend their ordinances to create an exemption for people who possess amateur radio licenses, allowing them to get permits to put up towers around 60-75 feet tall.

So far, Troy, Clinton Township, and Madison Heights have all tweaked their ordinances to give ham radio operators an exemption.

He said that trees and foliage have a major impact on HF band signals, making it much more difficult to receive and transmit signals unless a tower can get above the treetops. In an emergency situation, such as the 2003 blackout, a major storm or a tornado, ham radios provide a stable communications backup system, Chesney said, so strong signals are essential.

During the 2003 blackout, Chesney said he was one of the people taking shifts at the Macomb County Jail, where an emergency operations center is situated, working the ham radio there. Due to the power outage, the radio running on an emergency generator was the only communications link between Macomb County and Lansing, he said.

“Michigan is a boring state; we don’t get hurricanes, we don’t get earthquakes and we don’t get half-the-state fires, so we do a lot more practice than handle actual emergencies, but still, we’re ready,” Chesney said. “We have hams that volunteer and have assigned duty at all emergency operation centers, which includes police stations, hospitals and places they have to go in an emergency.”

He said there is an emergency communications preparedness organization known as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, or ARES, in Macomb County, as well as a federal emergency one — the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES — created from the 1950s civil defense program. Hams also update the National Weather Service with weather conditions, in the event of a storm.

Every June, Chesney said amateur radio operators across North, Central and South America take part in a “field day,” where they go out and run their equipment outside of the normal power grid and try to make as many contacts as possible across the world over the course of a weekend. He said it was part of the emergency preparedness routine.

Roseville City Manager Scott Adkins said the groups’ request had been forwarded along to the city attorney, Building Department and city planner for their input. At this stage, he is not sure if it would require changing the ordinance outright through council, or if it would be changed through a zoning amendment.

“We’re reviewing it; we just don’t know what route will be recommended to come forward,” Adkins said.

He said he believed it would end up being a zoning amendment, as the height restriction on communications towers is generally a zoning ordinance issue.

“Height restrictions are usually common, as part of a zoning ordinance, in residential neighborhoods, normally,” Adkins said. “We make sure there are no visual restrictions, so it is usually common that there are restrictions on antenna heights.”

Chesney added there are a couple hams in Roseville who are currently in violation of the city’s ordinance and have been cited, though he said the Building Department is holding off on moving the citations along until the ordinance amendment issue is settled.

At the council meeting, Mayor John Chirkun seemed optimistic that an agreement could be reached for the amateur radio operators’ towers.

“We would be more than willing to work with you and your group,” be said. “The manager and Building Department can come to a resolution on this, and if you would like anything else, you go to them. You can go over the facts and figures, and hopefully, we can make both sides happy.”

Adkins did not provide a timetable for when he expects the issue to be settled.