Durham News

August 7, 2014

Cellphone-tower rules get a pass

New rules for cellphone-tower permits get planning committee’s OK, but some steps remain before they actually take effect.

Chairwoman Cora Cole-McFadden said at the outset that the Joint City-County Planning Committee would take care of its item on cellphone tower rules “within this timeframe this morning.”

The timeframe was 30 minutes and so, with all due dispatch and general agreement, the committee closed a debate that had gone on for almost two years and sent the rules on toward becoming part of Durham’s Unified Development Ordinance.

“I think we’ve come out with something better because (of) the results of everybody’s collaboration,” said County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

The new rules remain in draft form and subject to a public hearing by the citizens’ advisory Durham Planning Commission, as well as hearings by the City Council and Board of County Commissioners before taking effect.

But the Planning Committee’s sign-off finished long a cycle of draft, opposition, draft, suggestion, draft, revision that had tried some elected officials’ patience and diverted the planning staff from other work the officials had deemed high priority.

The new rules revise those currently in effect to meet some concerns raised by citizens over their lack of say-so in deciding on cellphone-tower permits in their neighborhoods. They incorporate changes suggested by the City-County Planning Department and some from an InterNeighborhood Council proposal that would have required a total rewrite of the regulations that now exist.

Under the new rules, tower owners have to show proof they have at least $1 million in liability insurance, and have to conduct “balloon tests” (floating a balloon to the height of a proposed tower) with advance notice to the public of the tests’ time, date and location.

Most significantly, the new rules do not regard cell towers in residential districts as “concealed” if they are made up to look like trees. As unconcealed towers, their construction requires a special-use permit that may be issued only after a “quasi-judicial” hearing by the Board of Adjustment, during which the tower’s opponents have a chance to make their case.

InterNeighborhood Council spokesman Tom Miller said his group would like further clarification on standards the Board of Adjustment may consider, and on setback requirements; Planning Director Steve Medlin said he would revisit those points before completing a final proposed draft.

That draft remains subject to a public hearing by the advisory Durham Planning Commission, as well as hearings by the City Council and Board of County Commissioners before taking effect. Medlin said he hoped to have it ready for the commission in October, and on track for elected authorities’ action late this year or early next.

“I’d like to get it off my work program,” he said.

In a related matter, in a straw poll the planning committee gave a nod to desginating “unipole” cell towers as “concealed” everywhere except in residential zones. Also known as “slick sticks,” these towers house their working instruments within the tower itself instead of hanging off it.

The poll had no bearing on changing the rules for unipoles, but was taken at the request of planning commission Chairman David Harris to give the planning commission an idea of officials’ sentiment.

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