No changes to cell-tower rules likely soon, officials say

Dec. 04, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

There won’t be any changes to the regulations that govern the placement of new cell-phone towers in Durham until at least the late summer or early fall of 2014, officials said Wednesday.

The decision shelved for now a City/County Planning Department proposal to do away with the practice of labeling as “concealed,” and therefore as eligible for a quick, staff-level permit review, new towers that are dressed up as trees.

Instead of scheduling hearings on that, City Council members and County Commissioners who oversee the department’s work agreed to give a citizens group and industry representatives time to suggest a different set of ordinance changes.

But the elected officials voiced frustration with the way the debate unfolded, hinting along the way that they’re not happy with tactics of tower critics.

Councilwoman Diane Catotti offered the most pointed comments on those lines, saying she believes the tower debate threatens to crowd out work on more pressing matters.

A “tight work plan” and “very limited staff availability” in the Planning Department means there’s no time to generate draft after draft of new regulations as positions change, she said.

“I think at the end of this we need to have a real clear discussion about where in the priority [list] this is and what makes sense,” Catotti said.

Subsequent discussion made it clear that Councilman Don Moffitt, County Commissioner Brenda Howerton and to a lesser extent County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs agreed with Catotti. All sit on the Joint City/County Planning Committee.

Catotti’s views put a longtime political ally, Inter-Neighborhood Council and People’s Alliance activist Tom Miller, in a tough spot. He’s been helping the south Durham residents who oppose a planned monopine tower that’s ticketed for a site off N.C. 751.

The INC – a coalition of neighborhood associations – is working with 751-area residents and cell-industry representatives on a legislative proposal that would call for a wider-ranging rewrite of Durham’s tower regulations.

It envisions requiring a review by Durham’s Board of Adjustment or elected officials of all tower placements in residential areas. Those in business districts would receive a quicker, staff-only review.

Existing rules require Board of Adjustment or elected-official review only of non-camouflaged towers. For now, that includes the so-called monopines.

JCCPC members in April signaled that while they were skeptical of continuing to allow monopines, they didn’t see a need to change the basic rules giving other types of camouflaged towers preferential treatment in the approval process.

But Miller said distinctions based on camouflage “from the very beginning [have] not mattered much to neighborhoods” that “want to be involved” when a tower might go up near them.

He gave short shrift to Catotti’s complaints about the load on staff, saying the issue is more of a burden on “ordinary citizens with day jobs and lots to learn.”

That prompted Moffitt to point out that Miller’s involved with groups – the People’s Alliance, namely – that have pushed the city and county to move faster on the legislative front to boost the construction of low-cost housing.

“Everybody wants a slice,” Moffitt told Miller. “We’re just trying to move toward a resolution [here] that lets us focus on the other issues your committees are concerned about.”

“There is a problem around resources,” Howerton added.