By Jennifer Langston
SNOHOMISH — Until Thursday morning, Lydia Krieger didn’t realize how much a proposed radio antenna would change the view from the farm where she has lived for 50 years.
The steel structure would be almost three-quarters as tall as the Space Needle, erected in a rural valley known for its sleepy beauty and its wildlife park.
Everett-based radio station KRKO-AM has asked the county for permission to build up to eight antennas in the upper Snohomish River Valley, increasing its broadcast power tenfold and allowing the entire county and beyond to hear the news-talk radio station.
The largest free-standing antenna, painted orange and white, would be 425 feet tall. The others would be 199 feet.
Citizens opposed to the proposed antenna farm hired a helicopter Thursday morning to hover at the height of the towers to show valley residents how tall the structures would be.
Bob Heirman, a longtime fisherman and historian who worked for decades to establish a wildlife preserve in the area, watched the helicopter hover from an old homestead on Lord Hill.
It was four times higher than the tallest cottonwood trees along the Snohomish River.
He said the radio antennas would destroy the views from the 343-acre Heirman Wildlife Preserve named in his honor. Lord Hill Regional Park is uphill.
"Two of the county’s largest parks are going to be jeopardized by this," Heirman said. "Nobody wants this in their backyard, but of all the places in Snohomish County, I think this is the worst."
Krieger, 88, whose house sits on Craven’s Pumpkin Farm just across the road, said it was alarming to see the helicopter hovering high above her kitchen window.
Her husband Walter, nearly blind and deaf at age 91, gets his only recreation these days from a pair of special headphones that allow him to listen to the television from his wheelchair.
If the radio towers disrupt that electronic equipment, he’ll lose what little pleasure and contact with the outside world he has left, Krieger said.
KRKO said it expects only a handful of radio interference problems in surrounding homes. But those can be fixed with filters and simple technologies, said president and general manager Andy Skotdal.
The station is required by federal communications law to fix problems that surrounding residents may have, Skotdal said. He said all the issues that opponents have raised about air safety, wildlife and radio pollution just mask the real problem they have with the antennas.
"The fact of the matter in this whole debate is very simple," he said. "We want to build a new transmitter site, and they don’t want to look at it."
He doesn’t dispute that the antennas are ugly, but the station has already made concessions based on residents’ concerns. It reduced the height of all but one antenna and removed guy wires that could harm birds.
The wetland property is a good spot for AM radio transmission, and it’s relatively unpopulated compared to the rest of the county, he said.
Snohomish County planning staff decided the project wouldn’t have any significant impacts on the environment — a decision that neighbors and Harvey Air Field have appealed.
The hearing at the end of the month is designed to resolve those appeals, as well as decide whether the station will get a conditional use permit allowing it to build. That’s the project’s biggest outstanding hurdle.
The Federal Aviation Administration has already determined that the towers won’t be a threat to airplanes, skydivers or hot-air balloonists in the region.
But Citizens to Preserve the Upper Snohomish River Valley — a group that coalesced to fight the towers — assembled experts at a community meeting this week that foresee problems with the towers.
George Frese, a Wenatchee radio engineer with 60 years experience, told residents this week that the antenna farm could be expected to cause problems in everything from computer modems to telephones to garage door openers.
Some can be easily fixed with a filter from Radio Shack. Others perplex even the experts and can take thousands of dollars to fix, he said.
"To say they’re insignificant and can be repaired easily can be misleading," Frese said. Anything that’s electric of particularly electronic can be disrupted or interfered with."
Jay Woodward, who owns Balloon Depot in Snohomish, said he’s not worried about hot-air balloonists crashing into the towers, but the antennas would make landings more difficult.
He also thinks the towers will be a blemish on the landscape. His business brochure now shows a lovely, agricultural valley that hasn’t been changed by development.
"If I want to be straight … I’ll have to take another picture with these great big ugly orange and white eyesores. They’re so overbearing and out of place for that setting, it’s just ridiculous to contemplate," he said.
Wildlife biologist and trumpeter swan expert Martha Jordan disagrees with KRKO’s conclusions that the towers won’t interfere with bird migration.
The Heirman Wildlife Preserve, which the county has spent $2 million to acquire and maintain, is a haven for wintering trumpeter swans and migrating tundra swans. Thousands of ducks roost on Shadow Lake at any one time.
A large obstruction in the narrow river valley could cause the birds — particularly swans — to abandon the park as a roosting site, she said.
Skotdal said county planning and federal aviation experts have reviewed a 2-inch-thick, double-sided document submitted by the radio station. It has studied everything from soils to wildlife to radio interference.
He says the project really won’t have many impacts.
"I can certainly understand that people don’t want to look at a project like this … but the county code says we can go there," he said. "We’ve really worked hard to make as many concessions as we can … and we’re willing to work with them."
You can call Herald Writer Jennifer Langston at 425-339-3452
or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.