In an effort to have a say on where communications companies can place towers in town, Wendell commissioners decided last week to consider changing an ordinance to require commissioners’ approval before construction.
The effort, suggested by commissioner Sam Laughery, comes on the heels of complaints from several historic preservation organizations, about one proposed tower in the downtown area and as another communications company seems to be eyeing a spot on Cook Street.
“If (the property is) properly zoned and (the application) passes the telecommunications ordinance, we don’t have any control over where it goes,” Laughery said.
He called the change, which must first go through a formal recommendation process by the planning board, a final checkpoint for potential towers.
A hiccup with the planning of one cell tower is one of the reasons the town is looking for ways to have more say in where the towers go up.
A tower proposed at Fourth and Hollybrook streets was said to be detrimental to the value of historic properties in town. Several historic organizations asked the company, SCI Towers, to consider other locations.
The company is currently going through that process, but at least two sites studied so far – both at Wendell Park – would not provide the crucial downtown area coverage Town Manager Teresa Piner said downtown is the focus of the next tower the town allows. Currently, Wendell has two towers: One on the water tank at Thompson Field and one on Old Zebulon Road.
“I know there are other places in town that don’t have good cell service and we need to address that. But right now, the downtown core is my primary focus,” Piner said.
In addition to tying the hands of commissioners on a decision, current town policy doesn’t give much room for town staff to say no to a tower either, as long as it fulfills all requirements as written.
“There’s some concern that the way the ordinance is currently written, cell towers can go places that wouldn’t be best for neighborhoods and citizens,” Laughery said.
Originally, planning staff suggested coming up with language that would be more explicit in saying where towers can go, but Laughery said it sounded easier to have tower proposals come before the board on a case-by-case basis.
It makes it easier for the board, Laughery said, than investing effort in crafting the language. It would also give commissioners a real say in if a tower can go up at all.
Ongoing policy revisions
The struggle to control how many towers and where they will go in Wendell has been an ongoing obstacle for cellular companies and the town.
Several years ago, the town brought in a consultant to handle applications for towers, which made it difficult for communications companies to break ground in Wendell.
Soon after, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wanted feedback from cellular companies about service areas and how easy it was to place towers where they were needed. The FCC created a list of ‘bad players,’ and Wendell was on that list.
To fix that, the town got rid of the consultant and rewrote some policies to make it easier for communications companies to build a tower.
The current policy has attracted several companies in the past few months.
A second company has not made any formal application to build a tower, but did meet with planning staff in mid-August to learn more about the process they would need to take to secure a spot.
The company was looking at a spot on Cook Street, away from the downtown spot that caused controversy in early August.
Although the location on Cook Street may be away from more historic properties, Piner said she wasn’t sure if it would serve the downtown area.
Planning Director David Bergmark said the tower on Cook Street would carry T-Mobile service, although towers can support more than one provider.