Chapel Hill News

Rural neighbors lose cell tower fight

Courtesy of Tom Hartwell

It’s been said you can’t fight city hall, but that might be a snap compared with fighting a 20-story cell tower on your neighbor’s lawn.

Rural dwellers generally welcome broadband and stronger cellular coverage in the roughlands of dial-up Internet, land lines and “country cable” (satellite dishes). But some are equally wary of intrusions on natural landscapes.

This month, Orange County residents near Old Greensboro Road were unsuccessful in opposing American Tower Corp.’s application to construct a 199-foot “monotower” on Valley View Farm, where John and Betty Sue Yow raise hormone-free Angus beef cattle. At 199 feet, the tower will be one foot short of the Federal Aviation Administration requirement for lighting.

In June, a cluster of Durham County residents near St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church similarly lost their appeal against a proposed tower disguised as a pine tree, with a 7-0 vote by the Durham County Board of Adjustment. Opponents may take the matter to Superior Court.

The Orange County Board of Adjustment had delayed its vote on the “Class B” special use permit required to build the Old Greensboro Road tower, so that the Yows’ neighbors along Sesame Road could present a case against it. After opponents had their say Monday, the board voted unanimously to approve the tower.

AT&T and American Tower sent more than half a dozen lawyers and experts to the hearing. The companies had previously brought county officials on a tour of the site. County planning supervisor Michael Harvey recommended approving the permit. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson testified that increased cell coverage in western Orange County would be good for businesses.

“This is a very important application for AT&T and American Tower and a lot of businesses and residents in Orange County,” said Karen Kemerait, a Raleigh attorney representing American Tower.

Realtors who came to testify that homebuyers don’t like cell towers near them were told to avoid hearsay and that only licensed appraisers could make judgments on property valuation.

“There are more attorneys in this room than board members right now,” board member Larry Wright told Armand Lenchek of Coldwell Banker Real Estate, who said a cell phone tower would seriously detract from property values.

The board of adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that deliberates special land uses. Its decisions are based on existing law, and its members have little leeway. Its rulings are mostly based on whether the request conforms to existing laws.

“My concern is the towering height of it being right in the middle of beautiful landscape,” property owner Gary Dixon testified. He lives within a few hundred yards of the proposed tower’s base.

“We as a group are not against cell towers,” Dixon said. “We are, as a community, against the improper placement of a cell tower.”

Several neighbors testified, with a dozen more in attendance. Other opponents feared the tower would pose health hazards. Federal law blocks municipalities from using the potential health risks of RF (radiofrequency) radiation to deny applications for cellular towers.

The American Cancer Society says there is very little evidence that living, working or attending school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems.

Digital divide

Other Orange County residents spoke in support of the tower, which will beam wireless broadband and little green bars to cell phones in a 1.5-mile radius. American Tower Corp. has arranged with AT&T to send that company’s signal, but the tower will accommodate mounts for three additional providers.

“We call it the ‘digital divide,’” said Libbie Hough, who lives off Borland Road. “It’s still dial-up south of (U.S. Route) 70.”

“Professionally, it makes it very difficult if you want to start and run a small business from your home,” she said. Hough runs Comma, a marketing and design company, from her home.

With the paid testimony of North Carolina appraiser David A. Smith, American Tower and AT&T were able to argue that the inclusion of a 20-story tower would “maintain or enhance” the valuation of property next to the Yows’ farm, as required under the county’s Unified Development Ordinance 5.3.2.A-2(B).

Dixon said he had 30 days to file an appeal with the Orange County Planning Department, and might do so.

American Tower has active plans for two more cell towers in Orange County. One, at 7505 New Sharon Church Road, was approved last month. ATC is not pursuing its application for another site along N.C. 86, in favor of a site owned by Orange County at its recently closed solid waste landfill.