Officials asked to settle on cell-tower strategy

Aug. 03, 2014 @ 07:00 PM

City Council members and county commissioners are scheduled to try again this week to decide whether Durham’s regulations for cellphone towers need a major rewrite.

Some south Durham residents and the Inter-Neighborhood Council say it does, but the City/County Planning Department is telling elected officials it doesn’t see the need for a ground-up change to the tower law that’s been in place since 2004.
That law rewards with quick, staff-level permit reviews tower projects that involve “concealed” or camouflaged antenna supports.
The INC – a private advocacy group that represents neighborhood associations from across the city – wants officials to do away with the preferential treatment of camouflaged towers and instead send any that use residentially zoned land to a Board of Adjustment public hearing and permit review.
But it’s possible to tinker with the existing rules, retain the preferential treatment of camouflaged towers and still address the “primary concerns” about public notice, safety and buffers that are at the heart of the issue, Planning Director Steve Medlin and his staff argue.
That would also be “less costly and less time-consuming” than a full-blown rewrite of the ordinance, they said in a memo to the Joint City/County Planning Committee.
The committee – which includes City Council members and county commissioners – has been wrestling with the issue for months, and to date hasn’t given Medlin’s staff clear marching orders on what to do.
It’s had to wade into the issue because people living near St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church have objected to a company’s plans to install a cell tower on the church’s property.
The tower qualified as “concealed” under the speedy-review rules because the company proposed dressing it up as a pine tree. That’s been a common disguise for Durham towers, but the neighbors argued it was a thin one because the St. Barbara tower was going to be much taller than nearby real trees.
Following those complaints, Medlin’s staff and the JCCPC considered dropping the tree get-up from the list of accepted camouflage. But the INC upped the ante, arguing that officials should make it much more difficult to build towers near homes.
The problem that creates is that radio at cell-tower frequencies operates on what engineers call “line-of-sight” principles.
That means cell signals don’t bounce off the atmosphere and gain range the way those from an AM radio station would. Engineers have to compensate by placing a lot of antennas closer to a phone network’s users, or by building a lesser number of tall towers.
The INC proposal essentially argues for the tall-tower approach and would put them in commercial or industrial zones.
The group has continued to up its demands as the JCCPC remained undecided. In May, it suggested additional changes that would apply to any tower near homes a list of required Board of Adjustment findings that no other type of development has to meet.
Each could provide grounds for a judge to reverse a board decision granting a permit.
But the JCCPC is also hearing from other groups that want a loosening of the existing rules.
A local lawyer, Patrick Byker, who represents a tower company, has asked officials to consider adding so-called “slick-stick” towers to the list of accepted camouflages, on land zoned for business uses.
Slick sticks are a type of tower that place the antenna inside their structure, rather than on the outside. “It’s like a [baseball stadium’s] foul-ball pole or a light standard or flagpole that doesn’t have any accessories on it,” Byker explained.
Byker’s client wants to put a tower up near the Durham Freeway’s Briggs Avenue interchange, to serve cell traffic from the Durham Tech campus.
The slick-stick request comes to the committee with support from Durham Tech President Bill Ingram.
Via letter, Ingram told officials the campus now suffers from spotty cell coverage and needs better service for normal communication and “enhanced campus safety,” the latter so students and staff can more easily summon police, firefighters and medics.