Bennett, a retired professor of geophysics and oceanography, traces the conflict to 2000, when a sign appeared in the middle of a 40-acre parcel of undeveloped farmland announcing that KRKO planned to build towers there. Opponents quickly rallied to fight the station's permit applications.
The original plans filed with the Federal Communications Commission called for up to eight antennas, some more than 400 feet tall, with more than 180 guy wires. KRKO's owners picked the site because it was the right size, had excellent ground conductivity, low population density and seemed easy to develop. Towers would boost the station's 5,000-watt signal tenfold.
KRKO has earned a loyal audience by broadcasting Fox Sports Radio, along with local high school games, hockey and announcements about church fund-raisers and other community events. It also serves as the Emergency Alert System station for Snohomish County, and supporters argued that a more powerful signal would reach a wider audience -- critical during earthquakes, floods and other life-threatening events, says Ted Buehner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle.
The owners scaled down the towers' size and number, eliminated guy wires and cut down on hazard lighting after people raised concerns about birds colliding with the structures. (Many studies show that bird mortality rates vary depending on the design of towers.) The area is a major flyway for ducks and trumpeter swans, and Jan van Niel, one of the leaders of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, says the birds retreat to a lake in the Bob Heirman Wildlife Park, which is off-limits to dogs and hunting. "The towers are between the county park refuge and the agricultural fields where they feed, so most birds pass that way."
The area is also prized by anglers, who pack the banks of the Snohomish River fishing for migrating salmon and steelhead trout. Some of them also didn't want like the towers there.
In the prolonged legal battle, three independent hearing examiners denied key county permits. One examiner said the towers would be "stark, garish, angular and incompatible" with the landscape. Another studied dozens of reports on the health impacts of radio-frequency radiation, including several that tied AM transmitters to increased cases of childhood leukemia. In her 64-page decision, she acknowledged that research had yet to prove conclusive links, but said it was important to take precautionary measures "without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of the risks become fully apparent."
Protester Angela Day, a political science doctoral student at the University of Washington, focused on the health issue. "When initial studies suggested cigarettes might be bad for you, you could choose to either keep smoking or quit," she says. "With the towers, we didn't have the choice. I was uncomfortable with that."
The station, which hired its own scientific experts to testify, says on its website: "We absolutely deny that there is credible evidence to support the contention that someone can get cancer from living near an AM radio antenna."
That was also the opinion of a slim majority of the Snohomish County Council members. They eventually approved the four KRKO towers and two additional towers for the new station, saying that there was no hard evidence of health impacts and dismissing other concerns.
Tower backers describe the protests as "NIMBYism." "They've used up every excuse they can, and now, the bottom line is, these people are saying we don't like having towers here screwing up our view," says Steve Burling, an electronics technician and ham radio operator.
But once the first towers began broadcasting in February 2009, many neighbors heard KRKO coming through their corded phone lines -- even after the station provided them with special filters. "They sent a little thing to clip on the phone, but it didn't do much good. All you can hear is the sports radio going loud and clear," says Agnes Elkins, whose house overlooks the site from an upscale hillside development. Locals also complained that the KRKO signal interferes with and sometimes wipes out other AM stations.
Mark Craven, an agri-tourism entrepreneur who runs nearby Craven Farm, says the radio signal has disrupted his walkie-talkies and other machines: "Last year we had to buy new Visa machines. The old ones would cut off mid-transaction."
Craven, who has a clear view of the towers, thinks they detract from the pastoral ambiance of his place. He draws about 50,000 visitors annually with weddings, antique shows, hay rides, baby farm animal petting, and pumpkin picking and flinging. For two years, the pumpkin slingshot's target was a five-foot radio tower built out of rebar with a flashing red light on top. It mimicked KRKO's tallest tower, which was topped in blinking red lights. The model "got totally trashed," says Craven.