Rules package for cell towers to receive more work

Sep. 15, 2013 @ 02:29 PM

City/county planners say it’ll likely be the late fall before a rewrite of Durham’s rules for cell-phone towers is once again ready for elected officials to consider.
They showed a draft of the proposed regulations to the City Council members and county commissioners who sit on Joint City/County Planning Committee, and were told the package needed more work.
City Councilman Don Moffitt and Planning Director Steve Medlin said the group was concerned mostly how well-camouflaged a tower has to be before the approval process for it can bypass elected officials or an appointed review panel.
Medlin’s staff worked up the proposal in response to complaints about a proposed Sprint tower in south Durham that would go up in a stand of trees next to St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.
“My take on it is that we were close,” Moffitt said of the still-unfinished rules package. “It’s not going to make everyone happy, but the staff has done a great job incorporating a lot of the issues that citizens have brought forward.”
The south Durham dispute erupted after residents in a couple neighborhoods off N.C. 751 realized the Sprint tower would be 120 feet high – roughly twice as tall, they say, as the trees around it.
Sprint’s plan calls for the tower to be dressed up as a tree – a disguise Durham officials have encouraged in the past and that qualifies a tower owner for a quick, staff-level permit review.
But south Durham residents opposed to the Sprint plan want tower projects adjacent to residential areas to receive much more scrutiny, preferably from elected officials.
Members of the joint committee in the spring agreed with the additional-scrutiny part of that, and asked for revisions to the present law.
The resulting draft would channel most “concealed” towers to the appointed Board of Adjustment for review. The board handles permits that require a court-like, “quasi-judicial” process that uses formal rules of evidence and weighs applications for their compliance with detailed design standards.
The City Council and County Commissioners sometimes deal in such reviews. But their stock-in-trade is zoning cases, a different process where the decision more typically revolves whether a project is a good idea than on whether the specifics of its design meet the letter of the law.
The question prompting additional work on the cell-tower ordinance is how well-concealed a tower has to be to qualify even for the Board of Adjustment process.
Medlin and his staff say an administrative review should suffice for towers no taller than 60 feet, and those up to 120 feet that aren’t close to residential property.
Any tower that’s taller than 60 feet and is close to homes would have to go to the Board of Adjustment. And a “monopine” tower – the tree disguise – can’t qualify for a staff-only review unless it’s in a cluster of trees that covers at least 500 square feet, and is no more than 20 feet taller than the tallest real tree in the cluster.
The 500-square-foot standard struck committee members like Moffitt as small. “I have a single pine tree in my back yard that probably meets that definition,” Moffitt said.
Medlin said members also were dubious of using the height of a single tree as the benchmark. They preferred maybe “looking at the three tallest trees” in a stand or some sort of average of the area, he said.
Committee members also signaled they’d like to consider the idea, pushed by critics of the Sprint proposal, of requiring tower owners to show they have insurance.
Planners have resisted on the grounds that Durham doesn’t ask the sponsors of other types of development to obtain insurance.
But they will now look at asking for proof-of-insurance during the application process for a tower, stopping short of making it “an ongoing requirement we’d have to enforce” following construction, Medlin said.
The delay also gives critics of the Sprint tower and industry representatives a chance to talk, Moffitt said, adding the industry appears interested in moving toward having “fewer [but] taller towers” than Durham now allows.