Haʻena residents challenge AT&T cell tower plans

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Kaua’i County Council members held a briefing on AT&T’s plan to place a 5G cell tower on a house lot in Ha’ena during a committee meeting on Wednesday, May 1, as community residents filled the chambers to speak out against the proposed construction.

The seats in the council chambers were filled with North Shore residents opposing an AT&T cell tower on Wednesday, May 1. (Emma Grunwald / Kaua’i Now)

AT&T representative Elizabeth Songvilay presented the company’s proposal, stating the tower is needed to improve services for emergency responders. The plan to install a 95-foot cell tower in Ha’ena is part of AT&T’s partnership with the FirstNet Authority, an agency established in 2012 to build a nationwide network to aid first responders during critical events.

However, residents from the small community on the island’s North Shore cite the tower’s health risks such as headaches, sleep disturbances, and cognitive impairments. They also argue it poses a potential hazard during natural disasters and its significant visual impact on the community. They emphasized that a cell tower is outdated and advocated for alternative options, such as a satellite or Starlink.

Despite the opposition, AT&T says the proposed tower will provide services from Ke’e Beach to Princeville.

“In all state and territory plans, including in Hawaii, there were a number of specific areas identified by state and local public safety stakeholders as critical for FirstNet Services,” said Songvilay, who noted that providing the coverage is part of a federal mandate, and that the area from Ha’ena to Ke’e Beach was identified as a critical area.

In addition to supporting first responders, the tower would allow the public to reliably contact 911 and connect to a wireless network.


To minimize visual impacts, the 95-foot tower will be disguised as a pine tree and set over 100 feet from the road to minimize visual disruption to the landscape. 

To address health risks, a major concern for the community, Songvilay tried to assure residents of its safety by saying it would be well within the federal radio frequency guidelines.

Songvilay also said that the tower’s location, on a Ha’ena house lot, is necessary due to limited options for locations that can meet the required coverage area, while also being situated outside of the high-risk flood zone and not on conservation land.

Songvilay had made similar comments when she presented at an informational meeting held by the Hanalei to Ha’ena Community Association nearly a year ago, where she faced harsh criticism from community members.

Those members included Wainiha resident Joell Edwards, who noted that it became clear that reliable alternative technologies are readily available following last year’s meeting.


“There is no public safety needs that exist, required or would be met by the placement of a cell tower in Ha’ena,” she said on Wednesday.

Similar thoughts were shared by Fern Holland, who read aloud submitted testimony from Hollywood actor Pierce Brosnan and his wife Keely, residents of the North Shore.

“Communications during past emergencies – including the flood in 2018 – were effective due to the efficiency of satellite phones and emergency messaging. These alternatives, including Starlink, are more reliable than a cell tower which can be destroyed by hurricanes, fires, and/or tsunamis,” the Brosnans wrote. 

“In addition to being a blight on the landscape, the proposed cell tower will negatively impact the lives and health of our community, obstruct views, and diminish property values. AT&T should seek locations that are not detrimental to communities and residential areas.”

Wainiha resident Teri Tico noted she had drafted a resolution for the council to submit against the proposed tower.  “Look how far technology has come in just a few years,” said Tico, who also referred to two-way radio, satellite and the SOS emergency management system as alternatives for first responders. “Who would’ve thought we could use our cell phones to have emergency texting. We do not need, nor do we want a cell tower in Ha’ena.”


Kaua’i resident Bernadette Wickman said she was concerned about the tower’s location on a historic road interfering with their lifestyles. “We need a new model that makes the existing cell tower facility obsolete. And we have that. We have other options. And that’s what we have to focus on for our future. Not this old dinosaur,” she said. 

Some residents also criticized the lot owner, who reportedly lives in California full-time, for making the deal with AT&T. In addition, residents expressed a preference for living on a more remote part of the island without constant internet access. 

When council members asked Fire Chief Michael Gibson and Emergency Management Administrator Elton Ushio about the level of service in the area, they reported that service frequently goes in and out in Ha’ena and Ke’e, or doesn’t work at all when first responders need to be able to call 911 as quickly as possible. 

“I don’t know exact coverage areas. I know when I’m out there myself, it’s hit or miss,” Ushio said. 

In closing comments, Council Chair Mel Rapozo noted receiving 127 pieces of written testimony against the proposed tower.

“There has to be a better option,” he said, suggesting satellite, or putting the tower “some place up high,” away from the town. “There has to be a better option than plugging it in the middle of someone’s neighborhood.”

“I hope between our administration, KEMA (Kaua’i Emergency Management Agency), FirstNet, and everyone else … I think we’ve got to find what the best option is and not just the low hanging fruit, which every single member of that community does not want.”

The timeline for when AT&T plans to install the tower is unclear. As also stated during last year’s informational meeting, the company needs to have use and variance permits approved, which requires going before the Planning Commission in a public hearing. An application from AT&T has not yet come before before the commission, according to Public Information Officer Kim Tamaoka. 

In a follow-up email, AT&T communications representative Sarah Rodriguez declined to state the company’s target timeline to have the tower up. She noted being very early in the permitting process, which includes the completion of a cultural impact assessment and archaeological inventory survey. 

“We understand there are a number of questions and we will continue to engage with the community on this project,” Rodriguez said.


Emma Grunwald
Emma Grunwald is a reporter for Kauaʻi Now. You can reach her at
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