Durham News

March 26, 2014

What’s the fuss about cellphone towers?

A controversy over Durham’s process for permitting cellphone towers – a.k.a. “wireless communication facilities” – has been going on for more than two years, in court and in the halls of local government.

A controversy over Durham’s process for permitting cellphone towers – aka “wireless communication facilities” – has been going on for more than two years, in court and in the halls of local government.

The controversy developed from the Sprint telecommunications company’s application to build a 120-foot tower on property owned by St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church on N.C. 751 at Massey Chapel Road. Sprint’s engineering consultants, Philip Post and Associates of Chapel Hill, filed a site plan for the City-County Planning Department’s approval in January 2012.

Because the tower is to be “concealed” (camouflaged to resemble a very tall pine tree), it required only an administrative approval, based solely on compliance with local codes. That approval was made in July 2012.

When nearby residents found out the tower was coming to their neighborhood, they raised objections on grounds of aesthetics and safety and, as much as anything else, the fact they had not been notified ahead of time and had had no chance to make their opinions heard before a permit was granted.

Several neighbors appealed the approval to the Board of Adjustment, a volunteer citizens body that decides some use permits, zoning variances and appeals of administrative decisions regarding zoning and land use. In October 2012, the board sent approval back to the planning department for further information and re-consideration. A second approval came in October 2013, followed by a second appeal that was heard and denied last week.

Meanwhile, in early 2013 the Planning Department found that some elements of its approval process no longer complied with state law. Compliance required amending the city-county development regulations, but planners’ proposed amendments alarmed the cell-tower opponents – who claimed that citizens would be further excluded from influencing decisions on tower sites.

Those fears led the City Council to have the Planning Department draft rule changes to satisfy citizens’ concerns. When a first draft was presented to the Joint City-County Planning Committee (JCCPC) of council members and county commissioners in September 2013, it met objections from residents – organized as the Good Neighbors of 751 – and from spokesmen from the cellphone industry.

The Planning Committee sent the planners’ draft back for rewrites, at the same time encouraging the Sprint tower opponents and industry spokesmen to meet on their respective concerns.

JCCPC’s directions resulted in two proposals for new regulations, one from the Planning Department that retains separate approval processes for “concealed” and “non-concealed” towers; and one from Durham’s InterNeighborhood Council, with industry input, that has one process for towers in residential areas and a different, simpler one for towers elsewhere.

The regulatory structure in INC’s proposal is “a workable compromise,” Liz Hill with the American Tower Corp. wrote in a letter to the Planning Department, along with some suggested changes. The Planning Department’s own response to the INC proposal and industry comments ( bit.ly/1jvESOz) is due for presentation and debate at by the Joint City-County Planning Committee of commissioners and council members on Wednesday.

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