By Lyndsie Kiebert
North Idaho may soon have a connection to a worldwide effort to launch a space-based internet service into every nook and cranny of the planet.
Starlink, an initiative by private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company SpaceX, would use a series of “gateway earth stations” hooked up to existing fiber optic internet systems to ultimately provide internet to even the most remote places in the world.
But Bonner County’s earth station, located on Colburn Culver Road, has become the topic of extreme scrutiny. Many residents have expressed concern that the site hasn’t been adequately studied, and its classification as a “solar” operation under county code is inaccurate.
Above all, Selle Valley residents see the SpaceX operation as in direct conflict with desires outlined in a recently revamped comprehensive plan that puts keeping the area rural as a top priority.
Starlink meets Sandpoint
Initial outrage over the project focused largely on 5G, which Commissioner Dan McDonald contends will not be a part of the Starlink hardware installed on Colburn Culver. He did note, however, that the county’s planning department is spearheading an advisory committee to study 5G, “as there is a great deal of misinformation out there about it.”
“That being said, we have repeatedly established there is no 5G at this site,” McDonald told the Sandpoint Reader in late August. “It uses fiber optics for communication from the satellite download. This is the same technology that has been in use since the ’70s and the communication portion to each home would be through a home-mounted satellite dish like those that have been in use for decades.”
Providing the fiber and constructing the actual site is Coeur d’Alene-based internet company Fatbeam. Property owner John Mace told the Reader that Fatbeam approached him about leasing his property for the SpaceX site and, to his knowledge, the infrastructure is in place.
According to Planning Director Milton Ollerton, the project area consists of a 240-square-foot enclosure over gravel, hosting hardware used to communicate with SpaceX satellites.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has described the antenna “ground stations” as looking “like a UFO on a stick” — a bulbous white structure enclosed around a device that will communicate with what could eventually be 42,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, according to Parabolic Arc.
Neither Fatbeam nor SpaceX replied to requests for comment regarding the number of antennas being utilized at the site, or when the site will become active.
The debate on the ground
At the core of the issue is how and why the Bonner County Planning Department defined the structures under Title 11 — which regulates building permits — instead of Title 12, which handles land use.
The issue took center stage at a public hearing Aug. 14, during which Bonner County commissioners heard an appeal from several residents who believe the department’s decision to define the SpaceX antenna structures as “solar” rather than as “communications towers” was inaccurate and needs correcting.
During the hearing, Ollerton shared that his department became aware of the site when a neighbor reported the start of the construction. Bonner County issued a stop-work order June 10, and determined that the project required a building location permit. That permit, applied for by Mace and Fatbeam, was approved July 10. After working with Fatbeam to better understand the design and purpose of the antennas placed on the property, planning staff determined that the SpaceX equipment would be “communicating upward and not across the landscape like an antenna on a tower would,” and since the devices were secured to the ground, they were most comparable to solar panels, as defined by county code.
Because solar operations are allowed in all zones, the SpaceX site did not require analysis under Title 12. Therefore, the project did not require a conditional use permit, public hearing or a “formal review” against the comprehensive plan — only a BLP. Had the site been classified as a communication tower, such procedures would have been in order.
“This is a communication enterprise,” said Selle Valley resident Jared Johnston during the hearing, “and comparing it to a solar array is absurd.”
Several appellants referred to a sign posted at the SpaceX site warning people of radio frequency fields possibly exceeding “FCC rules for human exposure,” and questioned how such an operation could be allowed in an area zoned agricultural.
Selle-Samuels Sub-Area Planning Committee Vice Chair Charles Pope told the commissioners that even if they weren’t considering his group’s proposed comprehensive plan updates — which have been in the works for more than three years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic — the decision to classify the site under Title 11 “doesn’t pass the common sense test on multiple levels.”
“The only thing solar about the SpaceX wireless backhaul site that they both point up in the sky,” Pope said. “Mr. Ollerton swung and missed this one, and now he and/or you, our elected public servants, have the ability to make it right.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to uphold the building permit.
“It’s definitely not a tower. It doesn’t fit that description at all. Does it fit ‘solar panel?’ I struggle with that myself,” said Commissioner Jeff Connolly before the vote, adding that he doesn’t believe there is anything unlawful going on behind the scenes to force the BLP through.
“There’s no malicious intent or anything else,” he added. “The FCC, now, making sure that our community members are healthy and not affected by these things — that’s a conversation, but it’s a different conversation.”
The appellants — which are now referring to themselves collectively as the Save Selle Valley group — filed a request for reconsideration with the Bonner County commissioners on Aug. 28. Norman Semanko, an attorney representing Save Selle Valley, told the Reader that after 60 days with no action from the board, that request will expire on Oct. 27. The citizen group would then have 28 days to file an appeal in state court, if they choose to do so.
“It is the County’s determination that a conditional use permit is not required (along with the BLP) that is the real issue,” Semanko wrote Sept. 14 in an email to the Reader. “The group maintains that the property is not currently zoned for use as a SpaceX earth station site.”
What’s more, Semanko wrote that the Save Selle Valley group also filed a petition Sept. 4 with the FCC, “seeking reconsideration of SpaceX’s federal permit for the Colburn site (a temporary 60 day permit which expires on September 28) and asking that it be revoked for failure to comply with the applicable FCC Rules.”
Semanko said that key components of the group’s request to the FCC include SpaceX’s “failure to adequately determine the population numbers in the area or to account for certain critical infrastructure, including the existing Amtrak passenger rail service that passes through the area, as well as the key highways in the area.”
In addition, SpaceX has not yet obtained a long-term FCC license for the Colburn Culver Road earth station, and “the group can oppose that application if and when it is accepted for filing by the FCC.”
Tensions between members of the Selle-Samuels Sub-Area Planning Committee and Bonner County officials continue to ramp up, over both the SpaceX project and the committee’s comprehensive plan updates.
Several committee members used the public comment portion of the commissioners’ Sept. 15 business meeting to air those concerns. Allegations of altered maps included in the committee’s proposed comprehensive plan documents came to light, which some said appear to be an attempt by the planning department to “undermine” the committee’s efforts. Selle Valley resident Fred Omodt pointed out that the SpaceX project site was not included within the boundaries of the new maps.
Ollerton told the Reader that the misprinted maps are likely due to a computer error, and that he wasn’t made aware of the issue before the meeting.
“They quickly got themselves whipped up over a conspiracy created by themselves as opposed to acting like adults and finding out what actually happened,” McDonald told the Reader in an email following the meeting. “As we found out, it wasn’t some evil plot by Planning or the Commissioners, it had nothing to do with SpaceX, it was an issue with printing. A completely innocent mistake.”
Meanwhile, members of the Selle-Samuels Sub-Area Planning Committee will host a “Read The Plan” open house Saturday, Sept. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Oden Hall, 143 Sunnyside Road, where copies of the the committee’s finished comprehensive plan — submitted to Bonner County Planning in February — will be available to read.
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