A 2 1/2-year wrangle over cellphone towers could be brought to a close Monday night, at least for the time being.
Revised rules on towers – or “wireless communication facilities” (WCFs) – and the permitting process for them, giving residents more say in where and whether towers get built, come up for the county commissioners’ approval Monday night.
The City Council voted for the new rules (nando.com/19g) last week. But they modify the city and county shared Unified Development Ordinance, so they need both governments’ approval.
“Hopefully, we will both be supporting the same ordinance when the dust settles,” Councilman Don Moffitt said.
Never miss a local story.
Elected officials, city-county planners and citizens’ groups have debated tower regulations since late 2012. It started when residents of several south Durham neighborhoods learned the planning department had approved a 120-foot tower near their homes, and near two natural-gas pipelines, with no notice to them.
Council members’ approval vote was unanimous, but they left the option open to have the city-county planning department do some more revising later on.
“I would hope the staff would go back and look at the safety issues,” said Mayor Bill Bell, who voted for the rules despite a “discomfort level” with them at the end of last week’s public hearing.
Several residents who spoke at the hearing sought a delay to have language clarified and uniform height restrictions in residential zones, as well as added safety provisions.
Council members, though, were satisfied the regulations as written covered most of the citizens’ concerns.
Senior Planner Michael Stock said taking the rules back for more changes before a vote would mean at least a month’s delay.
“It would be torture for our staff to send this back at this point. And I’m against torture,” said Councilman Steve Schewel.
As council approved, the revisions include most of what residents wanted. Among other things, they 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 object on certain grounds, including opinions that the tower would not be "in harmony with the area" and that a tower would hurt property values.
The revised rules also:
▪ Require a tower owner to have $1 million worth of liability insurance; currently, there is no insurance requirement.
▪ Treat most towers disguised to resemble pine trees – aka “monopines” - 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.
“It may not feel like it tonight,” Brown said to those in the audience who had objected, “but it really is a victory for you as citizens.”