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Verizon defends cell phone tower lawsuit

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ALMENA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - "It's bullying tactics, they think they can just do whatever they want," said Al Hughes, a retired Almena Township resident opposing the telecom giant's plan to install a cell phone tower near his home on 45th Avenue.

Hughes, and approximately 40 others in the neighborhood opposing Verizon's plans last year to install the 165 ft. tower, fearing a loss of property value, and safety concerns from the proposed creation of an access road among other things.

"Verizon is supposed to give information about different microwaves this tower is supposed to give off," Hughes said, referring to community safety concerns. "That was omitted and never submitted."

In a unanimous vote back in 2015, the township board members voted unanimously to deny Verizon's initial request for a Special Use Permit Application.

According to meeting minutes from 2015, some residents did support the cell phone tower, citing a lack of coverage, but for the most part, residents near the area of the proposed tower opposed it.

Hughes thought his victory against Verizon was swifta testament to community involvement, but it was not to be.

Verizon filed a federal lawsuit against the township, and shortly thereafter, the township's board members voted unanimously to overturn the lawsuit.

Hughes said that he heard the township could not afford the high cost of a potential legal battle with Verizon.

"I had two different figures of $60,000 spent and other figures I heard were $80,000," he said.

A Newschannel 3 investigation shows that over the past two years, Verizon and other cell phone tower companies have filed at least 10 similar lawsuits against similar towns and townships across the country, where opposition to cell phone tower construction is strong, and in some cases, voted against.

Verizon is not flinching in the face of some criticism about the strategy.

"As a wireless provider we have been given certain rights under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996," read part of a statement provided by Verizon Communications Manager Trevor Thomas.

"When a municipality does not abide by the law, we are given the right to pursue legal action to enforce the law. While Verizon prefers not to pursue legal action, it has no choice when there are clear legal violations."

Thomas declined to elaborate what, if any laws were broken by Almena Township in its opposition to the tower.

"We only build towers where we have an urgent need to increase capacity and when we are not allowed to do that it can have a serious impact on public safety and a customer's ability to access the network," Thomas wrote.

Verizon cell phone signal was week near the area of the proposed tower location, but Hughes said the location isn't the best choice to increase signal.

"The tower is located in the last square mile of the southwest corner of Almena," he said, pointing to a map.

Hughes claims the improved signal will assist more than 50 miles outside the township, adding that there are better locations, non-residential locations that would be better choices.

When asked if the potential financial cost of a legal battle with Verizon influenced the Township board's decision reverse its decision, Supervisor Bill Van Tassel didn't rule it out.

"That might've weighed partly," he said in a phone interview with Newschannel 3.

Tassel said that he consulted with the township's wireless communications consultant, the township's planner and attorney shortly after the lawsuit was filed by Verizon.

"After looking at all the issues involved with the permit process, the board decided to resolve the dispute in a way that's in the best interests of the residents," he said.

He said the lawsuit left the township with few options.

"We're a small township you know, and we're kind of limited with what we can do."

Back at his home on 45th street near the cell phone tower location, Hughes said he's now angry at both Verizon and the township board.

"I think they should have kept their minds made up instead of turning around," he said.

Hughes said the township already sank money into the legal battle, but gave up too soon, not looking at all options ahead.

As for Verizon, he doesn't have use the company's products now, and doubts he ever will.

"Now my property values are going to decrease," he said. "It's big business going after the middle class."

Construction on the access road leading to the tower is underway, with construction of the tower to follow.

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Verizon is not alone in filing lawsuits against towns opposing cell phone towers, other carriers have filed similar lawsuits across the country.

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