Durham cell-tower rules back before officials today

08/06/2014 12:02 PM

08/03/2014 10:26 AM

A controversy over cellphone tower rules that has dragged on for almost two years could start winding down this morning.

That’s when the Joint City-County Planning Committee of county commissioners and City Council members get the proposed new rules’ latest edition.

The rules ( bit.ly/1tyatTv) retain most elements of planners’ previous drafts, but they incorporate some proposals from the InterNeighborhood Council and south-Durham homeowners calling themselves “The Good Neighbors of 751.”

From the neighborhood alternative, the planners incorporated:

•  INC’s standards for planted or natural buffers between tower land and adjoining properties;
•  Requiring a tower owner to show proof of at least $1 million in liability insurance;
•  Specifics for required balloon tests (floating a balloon to the height of a proposed tower) and for notifying the public of the tests’ time, date and location.

The planning department’s recommendations, though, leave alone the largest difference between its approach and the neighborhoods”: the basis for how towers get approved.

The planning department wants to keep its existing distinction between cell towers that look like what they are and towers that are “concealed” – made to to look like trees, flagpoles, streetlights, etc. Concealed-tower permits are decided by the planning director, with no public input; unconcealed towers have to get the Board of Adjustment’s OK in a public hearing.

The neighborhood proposal, on the other hand, ignores concealment and requires Board of Adjustment approval for towers in residential areas while allowing the faster, simpler administrative process (which tower builders and operators like) anywhere else.

However, the planning department also proposes to skirt the issue by taking fake trees off the list of what qualifies as “concealment,” thus for practical purposes bringing almost any tower that would be proposed for a residential district into the public-review process. According to Planning Director Steve Medlin, that takes care of most of the resident concerns over public notice and input.

It also takes less time, trouble and cost than totally rewriting the existing regulations, Medlin notes, and lets his staff get on sooner to the other projects elected officials have directed them to handle.

That last directly addresses a sore point for some commissioners and council members: Cell towers are taking up a lot of time.

“The staff has quite a few other obligations,” said Mayor-Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, the JCCPC chairwoman. “We need to try to get this off their plate as soon as we possibly can. In all honesty, it's been a long long journey.”

The journey started in late 2012 when residents near the N.C. 751-Massey Chapel Road found out a pine-tree tower was planned to go up in their midst. Organizing over several neighborhoods as the “Good Neighbors,” they came to City Hall complaining that the tower had been approved without their knowledge or chance to say anything about it.

At the time, the planning department was having to rewrite some of its permit-approval rules to comply with new state law. Their proposed changes alarmed the Good Neighbors even more, and the council and commissioners told the planners to do something about the citizens’ concerns.

That was in April 2013. Planners brought out some ideas for easing the residents’ minds the following September, but received only more opposition and a directive to try again, and so it has continued. Whether there is a meeting of minds this morning remains to be seen.

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