Move to restrict AM towers

Move to restrict AM towers in Snohomish County Shoreline areas
Jim Dalke, CPBE AMD 8-VSB

A proposed amendment to Snohomish County’s Shoreline Master Program that would eliminate or restrict AM radio antennas and transmitter sites in shoreline areas drew a quick response from the Society of Broadcast Engineers recently.

The Washington State Shoreline Management Act was implemented in 1972 across the state to guide development along the state’s many miles of freshwater and saltwater shorelines.  Some counties, like Snohomish County, have designated all of their floodplain farmland a “shoreline” for regulatory purposes.  Snohomish County is the first county in a statewide Ecology initiative to update its master program and a last-minute amendment was proposed targeting AM radio.  Amendment 30 would specifically prohibit repair or replacement of any structure that was damaged in a natural disaster such as an earthquake or windstorm by making AM radio a non-conforming use in the shoreline.  No grandfathering provision was included in the original amendment.  This means the station would have to go dark if it suffered damage in a disaster.

After consultation with the SBE National Staff, a response from Seattle Chapter 16 was sent to the Snohomish County Council as follows:

The Seattle Chapter of the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE),the national association of broadcast technical and operating personnel, learned over the weekend that the County Council is considering an amendment to its proposed Shoreline Master Program that would prohibit AM radio antennas and transmitter sites within the shoreline jurisdictions in Snohomish County. Amendment 30 is similar except that it would grandfather, as a nonconforming use, existing AM Broadcast stations within shoreline jurisdiction.

Medium-wave (AM) broadcast radio signals have very specific broadcast engineering requirements and limitations. Medium-wave radio signals travel along the surface of the Earth to provide local coverage. Therefore the conductivity of the soil around the antenna and between the antenna and the required coverage area are critical. In the Puget Sound region, soil conductivity is notoriously poor. AM antennas must be located in hydric soils along shorelines in this area, in order to properly propagate the signal. That is why KIXI, KKNW, and KXPA are located in Mercer Slough, and why KIRO, KPTK, KTTH, KVI and others are located on Maury Island and Vashon Island, surrounded by salt water.

SBE is particularly concerned about the impact the amendment will have on the future operations of broadcasters in Snohomish County. There are several medium-wave transmitter sites already located within county shoreline areas, including KRKO1380 AM, KVVYZ1230 AM, KLB500, KCIS630 AM and the new 1520 AM. All of these facilities will ultimately have to be substantially repaired or replaced and any structure is subject to destruction from natural events. Amendment 30 makes no provision for the complete replacement of transmitter facilities in these circumstances, and in fact, as a non-conforming use, the stations would, in the event that a substantial repair or tower replacement is called for, the station would simply have to cease operation.

The AM broadcast band is essentially full in the Puget Sound basin. There is no need for an amendment that purports to ban future AM radio stations when there is no room in the frequency band allotted by the Federal Communications Commission for AM broadcasting to allow any more AM stations in any case. Therefore, the only impact of Amendment 30 would be to eliminate existing local transmitter sites from the County and essentially run those local businesses off the air.  Since AM broadcasting is a major source of emergency communications and distribution of emergency alerting information (and, as an example, Amber Alerts) the County is about to consider a proposal to severely harm and endanger its citizens.

We are informed that there are a number of legal problems with this proposed amendment as well as the practical ones discussed above. The Federal Communications Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over the assignment of radio frequencies and the licensing of broadcast stations. The Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. §307(b) specifically tasks the FCC with making a fair, efficient and equitable allocation of frequencies, power and times of operation of radio stations among the several States and communities. FCC has, in the exercise of that exclusive jurisdiction, determined that the public interest, convenience and necessity is served by the presence of the existing radio stations and any others that are assigned to serve communities within Snohomish County. Should the County pass the proposed ordinance, thus effectively precluding all AM stations in the entire county (because, as explained above, the antennas must be placed in shoreline areas in order to function and because those areas are where all available open land is located) the County will be nullifying the exclusive and pervasive jurisdiction of the FCC.  We are informed that the County’s action would be subject to a preemption challenge and a finding that the ordinance is void as preempted by Federal law.

Finally, it is notable that the Amendment Sheet for this proposal is devoid of any recitals, findings, or conclusions to support the proposed action. It is unclear how AM towers were singled out in particular for this discriminatory treatment.

On behalf of SBE we ask that the members of the Council oppose Amendment 30. Please contact me with respect to this matter. We would be pleased to work with you to craft an acceptable ordinance that does not unreasonably discriminate against or handicap AM broadcast stations which are attempting to compete for advertising revenues and listeners in a very difficult, competitive market environment.


Snohomish County has scheduled a hearing to consider the amendments on October 13 in Everett.  The hearing will be held to consider objections to amendment 30 that were heard during the last hearing on September 22.

What happens in Snohomish County is likely to influence other master program updates occurring throughout the state and could set a precedent.  The King County master program update is currently entering its final stages.  Someone should check to determine whether the master program update may impact KVI, KIRO, and potentially the NEW 740 AM site in Carnation.  Additional inquiries should be made to determine the status of the Pierce County shoreline master program update and its potential impact on KKMO and KHHO.  A check of the City of Bellevue shoreline master program status, whether it’s being updated, and when would also be prudent as it relates to KIXI, KKNW, and KXPA.

We will have a follow up story in the next Waveguide issue.