Durham tower rules rewrite appears likely

Apr. 02, 2014 @ 08:45 PM

Under pressure from a key neighborhood group, city and county leaders are drifting toward ordering a top-to-bottom rewrite of Durham’s rules for siting cell-phone towers.

Members of the Joint City/County Planning Committee ended a discussion of the issue Wednesday with an understanding that Planning Director Steve Medlin will develop a game plan for addressing the issue.

The debate otherwise produced little in the way of clear policy direction, Medlin telling members he and his staff “probably are going to be coming back to you to work through each of these items line by line.”

He was alluding to a legislative request from the Inter-Neighborhood Council that in practical terms would scrap the ordinance that’s governed tower placement in Durham since 2004.

The existing ordinance allows cell-phone companies to place towers in most parts of the county, with a permit requiring staff-only review, as long as the towers are “concealed” or somehow camouflaged.

If a tower’s not concealed, its owner has to go to the Board of Adjustment and, in a public hearing, prove compliance with local regulations

Spurred on by a siting quarrel in south Durham, the Inter-Neighborhood Council has asked officials to do away with the preferential treatment of concealed towers and require Board of Adjustment hearings for most every tower placement in a residential area.

The south Durham dispute has revolved around Sprint’s plan to install a so-called “monopine” – a tower disguised as a tree – on the N.C. 751 property of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.

The Board of Adjustment has twice sided with Sprint in that argument, ruling just last week that administrators acted properly in approving the plan. Neighbors are expected to go to court to challenge that decision.

But going forward, “the sticking points seem to be the citizens’ input,” County Commissioner Brenda Howerton said on Wednesday.

Since 2004, cell companies for the most part have shied away from the time-consuming Board of Adjustment process by hewing to local governments’ desire for concealed towers.

The INC proposal, however, seems geared to making it much more difficult to place towers in residential areas. It would, for instance, regulate in residential zones the placement of a tower relative even to buildings sharing a site, never mind to structures off-site.

Opponents of Sprint’s N.C. 751 proposal have voiced an assortment of complaints about it that include a tower’s potential harms to safety, aesthetics and property values.

The effect on cell service, particularly in rural and suburban areas, has hardly figured in the debate, even though cell technology runs on what radio engineers call “line of sight” principles.

Signals on cell-radio frequencies don’t travel well, meaning a company needs a lot of relatively short towers close to its customers, or a lesser number of tall ones that can transmit over a larger area.

Last week’s Board of Adjustment hearing highlighted the problem, as Sprint volunteered “propagation” maps showing that its current antenna network provides only spotty coverage in south Durham. As it happened, the key opponents of its project live where there’s good coverage. Nearby subdivisions, however, receive only a weak signal.

The INC has indicated a preference for the fewer-but-taller approach to towers and believes it has common ground on with that cell companies.

Wednesday’s discussion occurred in the absence of City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, who’s questioned whether a rewrite of the ordinance will absorb too much staff time.