Planners prep new rules for cell towers

Aug. 29, 2013 @ 07:24 PM

City/county planners say they want to check with elected officials next week about whether they’re on the right track when it comes to rewriting the rules that govern the placement of cell-phone towers in Durham.

As members of the Joint City/County Planning Committee requested this spring, the draft rules package will subject so-called “concealed” towers to a stricter review process that more often requires formal hearings.

But they also will tighten the definition of so-called “monopine” towers – antennas dressed up to look like trees – to ensure a formal hearing if their disguise seems thin.

Planners suggest regarding such towers as concealed only if they’re placed inside “an existing cluster of trees” that covers at least 500 square feet, and only if they’re no taller than 20 feet above “the tallest tree within the cluster.”

Designers also have to make sure the tower looks like a tree trunk, and that its antennas look like “branches, leaves and any other applicable appendage of a tree,” Senior Planner Michael Stock said.

Unconcealed towers, depending on the placement, as under the current rules will have to go through Durham’s Board of Adjustment, the City Council or the County Commissioners for approval.

The proposed changes are reacting to the controversy that erupted in south Durham after representatives of Sprint secured permission to place a “concealed” tower next to St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church off N.C. 751

Because it’s to be camouflaged as a tree, Durham’s existing rules allowed the plan to be approved by the City/County Planning Department without a public hearing.

But neighbors who object to the project say the Sprint tower won’t be all that camouflaged. At 120 feet tall, it’ll be bigger than any of vegetation around it – twice as tall, neighbors allege.

Durham’s governments since 2004 have encouraged disguises by saying a tower owner that uses one can obtain a permit from administrators without a public hearing.

“Non-concealed” towers, by contrast, need a public hearing that either the Board of Adjustment or an elected body could conduct using court-like procedures.

Cell companies over the past decade have opted exclusively for the camouflage and a staff-only review.

Administrators count that a success for the law, but opponents of the Sprint tower next to St. Barbara’s say towers in residential zones need more scrutiny.

The proposed rules will continue to require a hearing for any non-concealed tower, and for any tower concealed or non-concealed that’s within 300 feet of a scenic byway.

Staff approval will continue to suffice for a concealed or camouflaged tower that’s less than 60 feet all or that’s placed on a tract zoned for business or institutional uses that’s not near homes.

But camouflaged, tall towers and towers close to homes or residential property will require a public hearing.

The Joint City/County Planning Committee includes City Council members, county commissioners and a representative of the appointed planning board. It oversees work on changes to Durham’s land-use ordinance.

The panel meets Wednesday morning at City Hall.