County residents have long complained about spotty cell phone reception, especially when passing through some of the more remote areas of Elbert County.
But the gaps in coverage are slowly disappearing as the county's Community and Development Services department continues to process a steady stream of applications for new cell phone towers as well as requests to “co-locate” new equipment on existing towers.
Presently, there are 12 cell towers in Elbert County, according to Curt Settle, a supervisor at the Colorado Division of Property Taxation, the state entity responsible for tracking — and taxing — cell towers in each of the counties.
“Ten years ago, there were only nine cell towers in Elbert County,” Settle said. “So, relatively speaking, coverage around the county should be improving.”
Settle said Cellco, a Verizon-owned company, operates three towers in the county; T-Mobile has one; and Northeast Cellular Inc., a Colorado-based company out of Fort Morgan that is owned by Viaero, has eight towers in Elbert.
“Most of those entities lease space on their towers to other cell companies,” Settle added.
CDS Director Kyle Fenner reports cell tower applications continue to come into her office. “Right now we've got three active new cell tower applications going through the Special Use by Review process,” said Fenner. “Two are co-locations and one is for a new tower.”
Co-locations, Fenner said, involve putting additional equipment on existing cell towers.
Faith Mehrer, an administrative assistant in the CDS department, manages Elbert's cell tower database and tracks all cell tower activity in the county. Cell tower-related files occupy an entire filing cabinet in the department.
Companies that erect and maintain cell phone towers, usually on land leased from private property owners, are taxed by the state.
“All of the state-assessed value,” Settle explained, “is collected locally and funneled back to the individual counties.”
Both County Treasurer Rick Pettitt and County Assessor Billie Mills said it was difficult to say exactly how much revenue cell tower assessments generate for the county.
“The payments we receive from the state are not broken down to show specific cell tower (revenues),” said Pettitt.
But Elbert County's cell tower-related income stream has been increasing and is “certainly not insignificant,” said Settle.
Fenner said CDS has recently modified the cell tower application process, creating a new “over-the-counter” option that allows for same-day approvals for some projects rather than the four- to six-months' wait involved in navigating the Special Use by Review process.
“The over-the-counter option encourages co-location,” said Carolyn Parkinson, a county planner. “In general, we like companies to co-locate, mostly because we want to limit the number of cell towers going up around the county.”
Parkinson said that when county officials review over-the-counter applications for new towers, “the thing we're most interested in is the engineer's report and verifying that the tower can support the equipment they want to put on it.”
Blueprint drawings for all new cell towers have to be approved by a registered Colorado engineer, Fenner said, just one of the many regulations contained in Part 2, Section 17 of the county's Land Use Code, which controls cell towers and covers everything from height restrictions to torque requirements for guy-wires.
“We're getting better (cell phone) coverage as companies are filling in the black holes,” Fenner said. “But there are still a lot of dead spots around the county.”