City/county panel seeks rewrite of cell-tower rules

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 07:15 PM

Elected officials said Wednesday they want Durham’s Board of Adjustment to oversee more cases involving the siting of cell-phone towers than local law has required since 2004.

They signaled that they might be willing to continue allowing some types of concealed cell towers to go up with only an administrative review, but may well draw the line at the sort of disguise that’s sparked controversy in south Durham.

There, residents of several neighborhoods have objected to Sprint’s plan to erect a tower camouflaged to look like a pine tree. They contend the mask is a thin one given that the tower would be about twice as tall as the surrounding vegetation.

 Members of the Joint City/County Planning Committee agreed.

“Clearly, a pine tree that’s 60 feet above all the others is not really ‘concealed,’” County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said.

She added that rewrite of Durham’s tower ordinance is “challenging, but it has to be done.”

Her views paralleled those of City Council members Diane Catotti, Don Moffitt and Cora Cole-McFadden.

They all signaled that they want reviews of permits for such towers assigned to the Board of Adjustment, which would handle them in open meetings via a “quasi-judicial,” court-like hearing to determine whether an application complies with local land-use regulations.

The adjustment board in theory already handles reviews of un-camouflaged towers. But there haven’t been any of them since officials revised the law in 2004 to offer cell companies a quicker, administrative review if they were willing to take measures to hide antennas.

Catotti said she’d favor drawing a revision of the 2004 rules “narrowly enough” to require adjustment board involvement when a tower site is in a residential zone, and even then only when it’s “freestanding.”

That would cover so-called “monopine” towers like the one Sprint wants to build.

But it could well retain administrative reviews of antennas that would occupy space on or in an existing structure.

“The current ordinance bifurcates the [review] process to encourage certain types of cell towers,” Moffitt said, backing up Catotti. “If we think about that process, we can more narrowly define what we really want.”

 The council members and Jacobs also said they agree with neighbors that officials in rewriting the ordinance should consider asking cell companies to define “fall zones” for towers and provide proof they have liability insurance.

A fall zone should ensure that a tower that collapses can’t strike utility lines or land on a road, said Dolly Fehrenbacher, one of the south Durham residents who’s criticized the Sprint plan.

Proof of insurance in land-use approvals is unprecedented locally, but elsewhere in North Carolina, Asheville’s government requires it, Senior Planner Michael Stock said.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Don O’Toole cautioned members of the joint committee that any revision of the ordinance won’t apply to the Sprint tower, as it’s in theory been approved. That approval is under appeal.

A former member of the joint committee, County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, attended Wednesday’s meeting and indicated she’d be inclined to support even tighter controls than the panel asked for.

Reckhow cited a law from a county in Ohio she said asks cell companies to present “substantial evidence as to why a tower has to go into a residential zone as opposed to a non-residential zone.”

It was far from clear that a similar demand here would be legal, as the N.C. General Assembly in 2007 barred cities and counties from asking cell companies about the business or engineering case for a new tower.

A critic of the Sprint proposal, resident Donna Rudolph, said she questions the rationale for allowing cell towers in residential zones at all.

Doing so, she said, undermines the rationale for zoning by mingling uses. “These are commercial operations for money,” she said. “You live here; you put commerce over there.”

Major-carrier coverage maps, however, hint at a potential trade off. Many show a weakening of signal strength in the predominantly residential areas along Durham’s southern border.

City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin said it’ll take time, perhaps into the fall, to come up with the draft of a new rules package.