Committee settles on cell-tower strategy

Aug. 06, 2014 @ 05:48 PM

Elected officials agreed Wednesday to undertake only a limited rewrite of Durham’s rules for cellphone towers, passing up a request from neighborhood groups that they discard the preferential treatment of “concealed” towers in residential areas.

The decision means planners can now begin drafting the revisions and perhaps have them to elected officials by the end of the year, City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin said.
Members of the Joint City/County Planning Committee acted after a coalition of groups represented by the Inter-Neighborhood Council said it would accept a limited rewrite despite still having “serious misgivings” about the preferential treatment of “concealed” or camouflaged towers.
“Essentially, we are going along with what the staff is recommending,” INC spokesman Tom Miller said, alluding to a report from the Planning Department that advised against the sort of from-scratch rewrite his organization favored up to now.
Committee members in turn signaled that they’re willing to consider adding special approval standards for towers, widening the notice requirements when engineers do a “balloon test” to illustrate how tall a tower will be, and require towers to be set back from large gas lines.
Senior Planner Michael Stock said the limited rewrite will allow tower companies to use “monopines” – towers dressed up as trees – as an accepted form of camouflage only in non-residential areas.
Camouflage qualifies a tower for a staff-only review, a relatively quick process compared to the alternative, a public permit hearing before Durham’s Board of Adjustment.
The committee on Wednesday also green-lighted a separate request to expand the list of accepted camouflages, at least for land in commercial and industrial zones.
That would allow proposals for so-called “slick stick” towers – a simple pole, similar in appearance if not size to a baseball stadium’s foul poles or light poles, with no antennas sticking out – in those areas to get through with only a staff-level review.
Committee opinion was more divided on that subject than on the broader issue of whether to order a full rewrite of the ordinance.
City Councilwoman Diane Catotti and County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs objected to the idea of treating slick-stick towers as concealed, largely because however unadorned they might be, they’ll still be tall enough for people to notice.
But a majority of the panel agreed with Councilman Don Moffitt, who said Durham’s ordinance language on concealed towers “confuses the issue” because officials really are only trying to encourage companies to use particular types of towers.
“It’s really types of antennas we prefer and types we’d really rather not see,” Moffitt said.
He added that local governments do have to allow more tower placements.
“I’m willing to bet every person in this room has at least one cell phone, many of them probably more than one, and other devices that use cell signals,” he said.
The tower issue has surfaced on the JCCPC’s agenda repeatedly since a number of south Durham residents complained about a tree-disguised tower proposed next to St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church off  N.C. 751.