Smithfield Herald

Johnston County takes a second look at cell tower limits

Walter Wells, of AT&T, shows a coverage map of Johnston County. The white areas denote poor or nonexistent cell phone coverage.
Walter Wells, of AT&T, shows a coverage map of Johnston County. The white areas denote poor or nonexistent cell phone coverage. dquizon@newsobserver.com

Wireless carriers -- and the companies that build their towers -- want Johnston County to abandon its 120-foot height limit on cell towers.

On Tuesday, the industry presented its case to the Johnston County Planning Board, calling for a higher limit that would allow companies to reach more customers.

Johnston County hasn’t seen the construction of a new cell tower in five years, said Liz Hill, who handles local-government relations for American Tower Corp. Since then, smartphones have increased in popularity while coverage has remained the same.

That means a lot of customers aren’t receiving adequate coverage, Hill said. “Think of what’s happened in the last five years with cell phones,” she said. “We’re trying to find a way to reach those folks but still protect what you want to protect.”

Hill said she has heard stories of people going to McDonald’s restaurants late at night for wireless Internet service because they can’t get coverage in their homes. “They had laptops but nowhere to plug them in,” she said.

American Tower builds towers and leases space on them to companies like AT&T. Generally, Hill said, the higher a tower, the wider an area it can reach.

Walter Wells of AT&T showed planning board members a map of his company’s low-coverage areas -- known as “white areas” -- in Johnston.

The largest white areas are in rural parts of the county. The most troublesome spot, he said, is between Kenly and Zebulon. The southeastern and southwestern parts of the county also have big white areas.

Wells said towers need to be a certain height in order to reach customers. AT&T, he said, is planning an expansion that would allow it to reach more customers with wireless signals. “Without that height, we can’t reach the number of residents we need to service,” he said.

Planning board members were receptive but had concerns about aesthetics. Board chairman J.L. Browder asked Hall if there was any way to make towers more attractive.

Hill talked about “stealth” designs that make towers look like trees or flagpoles, but those can handicap coverage by as much as 10 percent, she said.

DeVan Barbour, who also sits on the board of commissioners, asked Wells whether A&T could accomplish its expansion plans within the current height limits. Wells said that would mean increasing the number of towers in the county, which could be cost-prohibitive.

“Additional funding would have to be found., and the corporation would have to decide whether or not that’s viable,” he said.

The planning board cannot make policy – that’s under the purview of commissioners. But Hill and Wells said they wanted to start the discussion there. Berry Gray, the county’s planning director, promised to have his staff research the topic.

Board member William Odell Edwards said staff should look at allowing different heights in different parts of the county. He pointed to the terrain on either side of Interstate 95. The land west of I-95 is in the Piedmont, with gently rolling hills, while the land east of the interstate is in the much flatter Coastal Plain. That means a one-size-fits-all rule might not serve the county well, Edwards said.

“Johnston County is basically two counties,” he said. “What fits on one side of the 95 won’t fit the other side of the 95.”

Board members Nicole Hackler asked Hill to show the county how much coverage radius different tower heights would provide.

“I think it’s very indicative that nothing has occurred in five years,” Hackler said. “That to me shows there’s some issue that needs to be addressed.”

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