If fences make good neighbors, cellphone towers tear them apart.

Administrators of St. John’s College in Santa Fe should have learned that lesson by now. They didn’t.

St. John’s tried last summer to foist an ugly cellphone tower on the city’s historic district, only to lose in decisive style. Now it’s back with a plan every bit as confused and unappealing as the first one. All of this has happened in less than a year, proving persistence isn’t always a virtue.

St. John’s first wanted a 75-foot cell tower camouflaged as a tree. The renderings looked like surreal vegetation from The Wizard of Oz.

Because the college is part of the historic district, it couldn’t do as it pleased by simply hiring a developer to build the towering blob. St. John’s needed city approval to exceed the allowable height of 16 feet for structures.

The Historic Districts Review Board rejected the campus tower in a 5-0 vote.

St. John’s new pitch is for a 65-foot monopole, undisguised in any way. The tower’s proposed location is 1160 Camino De Cruz Blanca, near Atalaya Trailhead.

Members of the review board are scheduled to inspect the site at noon Tuesday, then consider the proposal for the tower at a meeting the same evening.

The St. John’s campus covers 250 acres. Why place a cellphone tower on a high-profile section like the trailhead?

In search of an answer, I phoned the developer of the proposed tower, Sean Milks of Gravity Pad Partners LLC. He said he was merely an agent for AT&T. Milks referred me to a spokesman for the communications giant, Robert Digneo. In turn, Digneo said someone with a public relations company would answer my questions on behalf of AT&T.

Ninety minutes later, Digneo sent me a message stating the St. John’s campus tower was not an AT&T project. Unexplained is why the conglomerate is listed as the applicant.

Carol Carpenter, a spokeswoman for St. John’s College, gave this account of the proposal: “Gravity Pad approached St. John’s about putting a cell tower on our campus. … If the tower is approved by the Historic Review Board, and if we then agree to allow its construction, we will negotiate a contract with them.”

She said the college supports the plan for a 65-foot tower. St. John’s students and employees “struggle with poor and inconsistent [cellphone] access, which creates multiple challenges, including safety concerns.”

Any revenue the college makes from the tower would go to scholarships, Carpenter added.



Opponents of the project say the college could find other sites on its campus, preferably within a building. St. John’s United Methodist Church, 1200 Old Pecos Trail, has done just that. Telecommunications equipment within a modest tower looks like part of the church.

Stephen Durkovich, an attorney opposing the project, says the tower should be scotched for a fundamental reason.

“The proposal is not in harmony with the area,” he said.

To the surprise of no one, money figures in the site selection. Cheap and easy to build, the 65-foot monopole would attract clients.

“This particular cell tower is not an AT&T project, although AT&T is one of probably several wireless companies that may have serious interest in placing their equipment on it,” Digneo wrote in an email.

The tower could be a cash cow for some, but all the milk it emits wouldn’t be pure.

“Sixty-five feet is way higher than any other structure in that streetscape,” said David Rasch, who for 15 years was the city’s historic preservation officer.

He intends to ask the review board to postpone a decision on the tower so alternative sites can be explored.

Rebecca Wurzburger, a former city councilor, says she wants the review board to reject the proposal. She will be at the proposed location Tuesday when board members inspect it.

No discussion will be allowed during the tour, Wurzburger said, but a silent protest against the tower’s size and location is needed.

Bob Snow, a 19-year resident of the area, isn’t quiet about his opposition.

“We don’t think St. John’s has been a very good neighbor on this,” he said. “Let’s think about Santa Fe as a community. You’re putting this cell tower at the trailhead of a gorgeous spot.”

Looks aren’t everything, but St. John’s College seems to appreciate aesthetics. It boasts of having two “spectacular campuses,” one in Annapolis, Md., and the other in Santa Fe.

The college’s promotional material paints an idyllic picture — students reading the great books of Western civilization near Chesapeake Bay or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, not a cell tower in sight.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(15) comments

James Brown

Simonich should know that a cell tower on the St. John's campus must be line-of-site to St. John's Methodist's tower. This was well reported during coverage of 75' proposed tower last year. It was said that there might be one other possible location - near the lower dorms. Perhaps the trailhead location would provide better service to the neighbors. It is ironic that the most vocal opponents themselves built in the elite sprawl of the Ponderosa Ridge, Wilderness Gate and Upper Cruz Blanca upon historic trails that used to access the USFS boundary, thus relegating hikers to a viewless maze of tributary arroyos.

Stefanie Beninato

Why did this article quote Rebecca Wurzburger who now is going to do a silent protest at the site visit? She certainly did not actively participate in any of the other hearings on this tower. Is it name recognition or is she going to run for another political office?

Jason Yurtail

I live in the area near where the cell tower will be erected. Our cell service is non-existent so I have to have ancient CenturyLink or rely on WiFi calling. I'm sick of the rich folks at Los Miradores and Camino Cruz Blanca dictating what infrastructure we can have. It's time this city stops catering to the NIMBY attitudes of rich folks and the weird luddites and start making this city work. St John's is certainly not the villain here. It's shameful that the NM uses an editorial to support poor governance of the city and blame St. John's

John Cook

It's heartwarming that you go after the 'rich folks' on behalf of the poor people at St. John's.

Khal Spencer

[lol]

david cartwright

As others have stated, our cell service in this lamentable poorly infrastructured tourist town, is terrible. The local grievance group opposes everything, so nothing changes and the cell service remains poor. I wish the politicians might consider the majority of people in need, and not just the gatecrashers and grievance mongerers that seem to comprise 99 % of those that attend public hearings.

Zhansaya Kuatzhan

How could someone let this article be published? It is extremely poorly written, hostile, and clearly biased. What a poor excuse for journalism.

Cellphone towers are a matter of safety — women in need of protection, school shootings, hiking accidents, to name a few.

Khal Spencer

In case you missed it, the story is about how St. John's college is mangling the process, not whether a cell tower is a good idea. Maybe if it is so important to St. John's college, it should be somewhere in the middle of the campus rather than at a trailhead?

Christian Vanschayk

There is no question that Santa Fe resides in the dark ages of telecom service. Dead spots, dodgy service and a luddite attitude present a formidable barrier to economic development. If we wish to attract high paying jobs we must move beyond tourism and government. That will require substantial upgrade of our IT infrastructure. Simply rejecting individual proposals is not the solution.

Stefanie Beninato

Your response is standard pro cell phone, who cares about anything else. In case you haven't noticed, there has been a proliferation of cell phone towers and broadband in town. People still have to go outside to make calls even when in a "covered areas" Why not suggest a tower in your backyard?....And maybe if tourists weren't so busy consulting cell phones sitting in open air restaurants and on the plaza, they would actually talk with locals...What a concept!

Khal Spencer

There is a big cell tower on La Tierra Trails which I think we all ignore. But that's not in a historic district and besides, its alongside a big, ugly water tank.

St. John's, though, is so elitist and important. Why should we hold them to standards everyone else has to follow? I mean, shouldn't we be kissing their feet just for them being here?

Scott Miller

The need for improved cell phone service in the area is real. I live nearby and must walk outside my house to keep calls from dropping. My neighbors do the same.

I hope St. John’s and neighbors will find an acceptable solution. The fact that we have unreliable cell phone service within the city limits of the state capital in 2021 is pathetic.

Where is the mayor’s leadership when we need it? St. John’s is a major employer in town. In this day of active shooters on campus, St. John’s needs to be able to reliably communicate with its students at all times. Let’s have some cooperation or we may end up with a second abandoned college campus in town.

Stefanie Beninato

AT the last meeting, St John's did not provide a designated representative. The head of student services spoke but it was unclear if she had participated in the negotiations. Most tellingly she said that the campus was higher than the proposed site and students would "have to look at it too" indicating to me that there are higher locations on campus but as reported in the paper months ago, the students "didn't want to see it".

Khal Spencer

In other words, "we want the service, but NIMBY" to the tower.

Toby Wright

I would LOVE to have a tower in my backyard (Glorieta). Who do I call?

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