New rules for cell-phone towers that have been debated for more than two years are headed to the City Council and county commissioners.
The towers, formally called “wireless communication facilities” (WCFs) are “something that we have to have. It’s just part of growth,” Commissioner Melvin Whitley said after a Planning Commission hearing Tuesday night.
The commission voted to recommend that the council and commissioners adopt the new rules as drafted, but with one change: that property zoned “Rural Residential” have the same height restrictions as other non-rural zones if the property is within a “suburban” zoning tier.
Commissioner Tom Miller suggested the change after InterNeighborhood Council President Philip Azar requested it on behalf of that group.
“Just because you have a lot of acreage ... does not mean you should be any more susceptible to vertical real estate,” Azar said.
Mayor Bill Bell directed the City-County Planning Department to review the rules and get more public input. That led to a series of drafts and re-drafts, involving planners, citizens, industry representatives, public officials and attorneys, complicated by rule changes coming down from the state and federal governments.
“This subject matter, wireless communication facilities, is one of the most legislated and litigated issues of land use, bar none,” said Pat Young, the planning department’s assistant director.
The revisions (nando.com/wcfrules) give Durham homeowners most of what they have asked for since late 2012, when a group learned that the city-county planning department had approved a 120-foot tower near their homes, and near two natural-gas pipelines, with no notice to them.
Among other provisions, the new rules require advance notice to property owners within 600 feet of a proposed tower site, if the tower requires a special-use permit – which would be required for almost any tower in a residential zone.
Special-use permits are issued only after public hearings, at which neighbors have the chance to raise objections. Those objections may include claims that the tower would not be “in harmony with the area” and that a tower would detract from neighbors’ property values.
To get a permit, the applicant would have to perform a pre-announced balloon test, launching a large balloon to the height of the proposed tower to demonstrate how tall it would be. Currently there is no requirement.
The revised rules also:
▪ Require a tower owner to have $1 million worth of liability insurance; currently, there is no insurance requirement.
▪ Treat most monopines – towers disguised to resemble pine trees – as “non-concealed” WCFs; currently, monopines are considered “concealed,” however little they may look like real trees, and as such do not need special-use permits.
▪ Prohibit unipoles, or “slick sticks” – a new type of cell tower that houses antennas and accessory cables within the tower instead of having them attached outside in plain view – in most residential areas.
▪ Restrict tower height in most residential zones to 20 feet above whatever the base zoning allows – generally, 35 feet.
▪ Increases the required setback from property lines and natural-gas pipes to 120 percent of the tower’s height or 85 feet, whichever is greater, so that adjoining property will not be damaged in case of a collapse.
Besides Azar, who objected to the revisions without the Rural Residential inclusion, five citizens spoke against particular points in the proposed rules. They included Matthew Danielson, a partner in Durham Tower Development, who disliked the height restrictions.
The tallest tower allowed anywhere in Durham County would be 180 feet under the new rules. The shorter the tower, Danielson said, the fewer wireless carriers it can serve.
“The lower you allow, the more towers I need to build,” he said. “You will end up with more towers as an unintended consequence.” He also objected to a five-acre minimum for non-concealed tower sites in all residential areas.
The City-County Planning Department’s proposed revisions to rules governing cellphone towers (”wireless communication facilities” or “WCFs”) will go for public hearings and votes on approval by the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners. Hearing dates have not been set.
The draft revisions to the city-county development regulations are available at nando.com/wcfrules.