Cell-tower rule revamp a slow process, officials say

Feb. 05, 2014 @ 07:20 PM

A proposal from neighborhood activists that calls for a top-to-bottom rewrite of Durham’s rules on the placement of cell-phone towers inspired more scheduling angst Wednesday on the part of city and county officials.

Instead of being ready sometime in the late summer or early fall, it appears an ordinance based on the Inter-Neighborhood Council wouldn’t be ready for a vote until sometime in 2015.

City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin said he and his staff would need “six to nine months” to move a completed draft through the City Council and County Commissioners review process.

Any work by the Planning Department and the two governments’ lawyers wouldn’t begin until April at the earliest, as Medlin wants council members and commissioners who sit on the Joint City/County Planning Committee to first settle some policy issues.

And Medlin said taking on the INC-requested rewrite likely would mean canceling some other project that’s important to elected officials or key interest groups.

“We can do it, but if we do it, something else is going to have to come off my work program,” Medlin told committee members. “We just do not have the capacity in my department to do everything with the current level of staffing I have.”

The cell-phone issue already has consumed more of the department’s tightly-metered time than the governments had figured it would in fiscal 2013-14, he added.

Medlin’s comments responded to a question from City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, who late last year said she worried the cell-phone debate would crowd out more pressing tasks.

On Wednesday, she reiterated that she believes a full-fledged ordinance rewrite will be time-consuming.

“It seems to me [the time impact] would be significant,” she said.

The INC – urged by a group of south Durham residents who oppose a proposed Sprint cell tower off N.C. 751 – wants officials to replace the existing rules with new ones that would make it much more difficult to site towers in residential areas.

Officials now operate mainly on a distinction between “concealed” and unconcealed towers, subjecting those that obviously are an antenna tower to review by Durham’s Board of Adjustment.

Camouflaged towers – including the so-called “monopine” towers dressed up to resemble trees – receive only a staff-level review. For the most part, they’re the only type the cell industry has pursued in recent years.

Medlin’s staff and elected officials had considered changing the ordinance to drop monopines from the list of accepted tower disguises.

But the INC favors scrapping the camouflage distinction entirely, to instead subject all towers in residential areas to a Board of Adjustment review. It also favors revised height limits and a variety of other new regulatory requirements.

Many of the added requirements address the safety concerns that the south Durham tower opponents have invoked in the course of arguing against the Sprint project.

They include the possibility of a tower collapse, or that a lightning strike might touch off a gas explosion, despite a tower’s electrical grounding.

The south Durham tower opponents made it clear early on that they believe the radio emissions from cell towers have harmful health effects. But they’ve shied away from highlighting that argument, as Medlin’s staff has pointed out that local governments in North Carolina are barred by law from considering it in their land-use decision-making.

One of the most vocal opponents, Dolly Fehrenbacher, gave officials a letter Wednesday that raised a new safety concern. It questioned the use of emergency generators to supply backup electricity to a tower.

She said the fueling arrangements for generators should be “openly examined” during the review of a tower application.

Durham and other local utility providers, however, already routinely use generators to run water and sewer pump stations during power outages. Some stations get portable generators on an as-needed basis; others have generators permanently attached. Either way, the backups normally are uncontroversial.

Another critic, Donna Rudolph, gave the joint committee a letter from a supporter that argued officials should place an all-out moratorium on cell-tower construction if the Planning Department doesn’t have time to rewrite the ordinance.

City and county officials downsized the Planning Department following the 2008 real-estate crash. The department operates partly on review-fee revenue, which fell off sharply when development slowed because of the crash.

The pace of development locally has rebounded over the last couple of years, but not to the point where the two governments have felt any need to undo the post-crash staff cuts.