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Published: Wednesday, 8/19/2009

Request to erect 60-foot tower in Swanton nixed

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

SWANTON - If Gary Wodtke is going to erect a 60-foot radio tower at his Cypress Drive home, it won't be with the village's blessing.

Village Council, acting in its capacity as Swanton's Board of Zoning Appeals, last week turned down Mr. Wodtke's petition for a variance to allow the tower, which Mr. Wodtke said needs to be at least that tall to allow him to communicate with radio operators more than about 20 miles from his home.

Mr. Wodtke submitted letters of support from several immediate neighbors, and was accompanied to his presentation by other local amateur-radio, or "ham," operators who buttressed his assertion that a tower taller than allowed by village zoning regulations is essential to radio communication during emergencies when telephones - either wired or cellular - may not function.

"Being above the tree line is essential to reliable communication," said Bryan Patterson, a Fulton Township resident.

But while nobody spoke against Mr. Wodtke's appeal of a July 14 Swanton Planning Commission ruling, the appeals board voted it down, 4-1.

"I just don't think it fits in the neighborhood, because of its height and the small lots," board member and Council President Mike Rochelle said before affirming the planning commission's decision. Mr. Rochelle lives in the same subdivision as Mr. Wodtke.

"I feel we have to support what our law says, what our zoning code says," Councilman Pamela Moore agreed.

While Councilman Deacon Dzierzawski said that the appeals board, by its very nature, had the power to waive the rules - "our hands are not tied" by the regulations - he sided with the majority, while Councilman David Pilliod cast the dissenting vote in favor of Mr. Wodtke.

"If my neighbor wanted to put up a 60-foot tower, I wouldn't care as long as it wouldn't fall on my roof," Mr. Pilliod said.

Mr. Wodtke, a retired Ford Motor Co. electrician who moved to Swanton from Toledo four years ago, said he has been licensed in amateur radio since the late 1970s but was inactive for about two decades, before friends urged him to return to the hobby.

After he bought components for his radio tower in June, a neighbor suggested he inquire with the village about obtaining a permit, and that led to his unsuccessful petition to the planning commission.

During his initial presentation to the appeals board, Chris Dreyer, Mr. Wodtke's attorney, said Federal Communications Commission regulations pre-empt most local regulation of radio communications.

But Village Administrator Jon Gochenour said a recent federal court case from Texas upheld local authorities' right to restrict the height of communication towers and antennas.

Swanton's regulation was adopted in 1992, Mr. Gochenour said, apparently in response to the rapid spread of cell-phone towers during the early 1990s. Under that regulation, he said, towers more than 20 feet higher than a home roof line are not allowed in residential areas, either as a permitted or conditional use.

Mr. Wodtke's fellow radio enthusiasts said that while amateur radio is often described as a hobby, its participants also are ready and able to provide a vital public service during disasters when electric power for telephone systems is lost.

"You talk about this being a densely populated area, but this person [Mr. Wodtke] would be an asset to your community in times of emergency and dire need," Mr. Patterson said. Having emergency radio operators in thickly settled areas, he said, "would be beneficial to your community, not a detriment."

"It isn't just a toy for us," said George Wallworth of Chesterfield Township, near Wauseon. "We're here to help the community."

Mr. Wodtke said he considered the appeals board's decision to be a foregone conclusion, because of Mr. Rochelle's opposition. Mr. Dreyer said his client's next step would likely be a lawsuit in Fulton County Common Pleas Court, which would be filed no sooner than late this week.



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