The city of North Branch is working hard to expand high speed internet to more areas of the city.

During the North Branch City Council meeting Nov. 10, City Administrator Renae Fry explained the council had before them a request to approve a conditional use permit for the city of North Branch to construct internet transmission towers in excess of 75 feet in height.

Fry said the city desires to construct three towers to support a fixed wireless internet solution to supplement transmission equipment to be installed on two water towers, a siren tower and the Minnesota Department of Transportation tower located on Highway 95. The three towers will be taller than 75 feet, triggering the need for a conditional use permit under city code.

The location of the three towers includes site one, the southwest corner of 412th Street/Flink Avenue; site two, 5035 366th Street; and site three, the northeast corner of Lincoln Trail/367th Street.

Following discussion, the council approved conditional use permits for sites two and three, and directed staff to find a different location for the first tower due to possible legal challenges.

“They (the sites) are located strategically in the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the city and these towers will be utilized in conjunction with four other existing structures for the purpose of deploying a fixed wireless internet solution to bring high speed internet to the outer regions of our community that currently are not served or are so poorly served that they frankly cannot utilize the internet,” Fry said.

Fry explained the North Branch Planning Commission held a public hearing on the request on Nov. 2, and several residents spoke in opposition to site one; two individuals voiced concerns with the location of site two, a park; but no one spoke in opposition to site three.

“We did also have several witnesses that testified in favor of the overwhelming need for internet to serve those outer regions of the community. The center core of the city, roughly about 2 to 3 square miles of the total of 36, have multiple fiber sources of internet,” Fry said. “Those in the outlying areas, or those other than in an urban neighborhood, have no access to internet at this point.

“We worked with an engineer, who looked at a variety of different systems to determine where the optimum placement of the equipment would need to be to provide saturation for the entire city,” Fry added.

Representatives from Flaherty & Hood, city attorney for the city of North Branch, said based on objections for placement of a tower on site one, in particular from the adjacent property owner, potential for construction at that site could be delayed due to possible legal challenges. Representatives from Flaherty & Hood recommended the council does not approve the conditional use permit for site one.

Fry said it should be noted that service in the northwest quadrant of the city will likely be delayed until next spring or summer due to having to find a different site.

“Because the urgency right now is to get the footings that are necessary for these towers poured. So that’s why we were looking for public land, because we wanted to get the footings poured as quickly as possible, because once the footings are in place, tower construction can proceed over the course of the winter,” Fry said. “So if we are unable to find another public site that meets the criteria, and more importantly can provide the saturation necessary to serve the northwest quadrant in time to get the footings poured yet this fall, the residents in that area of the city will not likely see internet until next spring or summer. That is why this matter is so urgent and time sensitive.”

She said criteria for the three construction sites included the land needed to be publicly owned, such as right-of-way or a park; it had to have access to power; and it needed to be adjacent to a fiber source.

Fry said there was an urgency to get the project moving forward since North Branch Area Public Schools was moving toward distance learning.

“The urgency in this matter was pretty effectively communicated at the Planning Commission meeting. You heard from several representatives for the students and the school district, because we are pretty confident that the school will go totally online at some point,” Fry said. “We have a large number of our residents who are required to commute from home, or work from home, telecommute, and neither of those two groups have access to reliable internet. We also have a high number of residents that are required to obtain their medical care through telemedicine, and they are similarly challenged in that they don’t have internet.”

Mayor Jim Swenson voiced his support for the project to keep moving forward.

“We’ve been working on this project, as I’ve said, for a long time, and our citizens really need this project to proceed,” Swenson said.

Council Member Kelly Neider said this project will help better serve the needs of the city.

“I’m thrilled to see that in lieu of the COVID and all the challenges that our city and our country is faced with right now, those that are telecommuting, those students that can’t get online, I’m grateful that you guys have worked as hard as you have to get this to move forward as quickly as possible so that maybe, quite possibly this winter, our students will have better access to get their studies done because we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the next months to come,” Neider said.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people that are working from home and they’ll be online and they’re working, and suddenly it all drops and for four hours they can’t be at work,” Neider said. “I hoping and I’m believing that this will be a huge step in correcting those issues and empowering our residents to be able to work from home, do school from home, telecommunicate, so thank you, staff and mayor, for working as hard as you have to this on the move as quickly as possible.”

Council Member Kathy Blomquist thanked staff for their work on the project.

“I would like to commend staff on this. This has been a challenge; it’s been a moving target for about two years or even four years. Different vendors saying, ‘we’re going to do this, we’re not going to do this.’ And we have vendor that has stepped up and that (they) can do this,” Blomquist said. “Eventually, hopefully, we can get fiber, but this will solve a big problem for a lot of people so that they can have high speed internet.”

City Council vacant position

Due to the resignation of North Branch City Council Member Brian Voss following the Sept. 22 council meeting, the council officially declared a vacancy on the council during its Oct. 13 meeting.

The city received applications for the vacant seat from Bob Canada, Peter Schaps, Sean Peterson and Patrick Meacham.

Interviews with the four candidates were conducted during a special council session on Nov. 10, and the council was scheduled to appoint a person to the vacant seat during a special session on Nov. 17. Due to this newspaper’s deadlines, we were unable to print the results from the Nov. 17 special session. The appointed person will be sworn in during the council’s regular Nov. 24 meeting.

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