Don’t be surprised if a tree crops up next door and your cell service is suddenly perfect: A new town ordinance clears the way for disguised cellular towers in residential neighborhoods.
Under a rule approved by a split Cary Town Council on Thursday, “stealth” towers – disguised as pine trees, for example – are allowed to stand up to 150 feet tall on residential property, provided they satisfy a bevy of rules and complement their surroundings. The new ordinance, officials say, is meant to accommodate cell-network growth while easing residents’ complaints about their tall neighbors.
Previously, any tower proposed for residential property had to win special approval from the Cary Town Council. Those hearings became heated debates in recent years as cellular companies pushed closer to residential neighborhoods, which often didn’t take kindly to the structures. And in two cases when the council sided with neighbors, the tower builders sued.
“What we’ve been hearing from citizens is that they want more coverage, but then again they don’t want the tall, ugly towers next to them,” said Mayor Harold Weinbrecht. “This would meet both of those needs.”
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The new rules could open a lucrative field for tower builders. They now can build in backyards and vacant residential lots, near their customers, without facing expensive, complex hearings. As long, that is, as they settle for shorter, more-expensive towers.
Besides the 150-foot height limit, the “stealth” towers can’t be any taller than their distance from the nearest property line, unless they win special permission from a town board. The setback rule would limit towers in the most closely-packed neighborhoods to about 30 feet, while more-expansive neighborhoods could accommodate a 150-foot tower.
And while the change takes approving the disguised towers out of the council’s hands, it seems to leave town staff some latitude as they consider requests. Beyond simple numeric requirements, stealth towers in residential districts “must be designed to complement the physical landscape” around them.
For example, “a clock tower in the middle of the field might not be as stealth as a tree,” said Wayne Nicholas, a planning manager for the town. The rule, which essentially requires a judgment call by staff, also should protect residents from massively oversized fake trees, Weinbrecht said.
Councilwoman Lori Bush led a three-member minority that questioned and voted against the change. While Bush liked the idea of stealth towers, she asked whether the policy did enough to inform residents about towers planned for their neighborhood.
Bush pushed for mandatory “balloon tests,” wherein a builder floats a dirigible to give a sense of how tall a tower will be, and she wanted developers to hold neighborhood meetings about each residential tower.
“I just wonder if we’re not doing a disservice by not letting people see what’s going on in their neighborhood,” she said.
Councilman Don Frantz countered that excessive requirements could discourage the stealth towers the town wants. “The more costs we add ... we start taking away all those incentives,” he said.
Information, not input
Weinbrecht said the town could cause confusion by encouraging public input on a topic that residents can’t influence. Under the new rules, if a tower meets all the requirements, then neighbors can do little stop it.
It would be confusing for the town to say, “We’re taking your input, but guess what, we’re not going to do anything with it, because we can’t,” the mayor said, adding that the town still must keep residents informed of potential towers.
Councilwoman Gale Adcock said residents’ voices would still carry. “If 300 people came to Town Hall ... I do believe staff would say we’re feeling a little uncomfortable about this.”
Ultimately, councilwomen Jennifer Robinson, Lori Bush and Julie Robison voted against the measure.
It’s unclear whether Cary will see a proliferation of new towers under the realigned rules. In recent years, builders have put most of their new transmitters on existing structures, as the town prefers, Nicholas said. The town council last approved a tower in April 2011, following a builder’s successful legal claim that the town had wrongfully denied the project.