Middle road on cell towers

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 01:15 PM

“Conan the Barbarian,” a campily terrible 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle included, among many lines of painful dialogue, this lament:

“The only snakes I know of are those of Set and his cursed towers. Their evil has spread to every city. Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult, now... they're everywhere.”

That line comes to mind with Durham’s long-running, inconclusive argument over cell phone towers which do seem to be everywhere these days and, to some people are seen as, if not evil, unwelcome.

The dispute dates from plans by St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church a couple of years ago to allow a company to install a cell tower on its property.

The company’s plans to camouflage the tower as a pine tree didn’t sit well with neighbors, who objected to the tower’s scarcely veiled prominence on the landscape.  And they were upset over city rules which allowed staff in the City-County Planning Department to approve the design without any public airing.

Since then, the Joint City-County Planning Committee, as The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg put it in a story Monday, “has been wrestling with the issue for months, and to date hasn’t given (planning director Steve) Medlin’s staff clear marching orders on what to do.”

Wednesday, the committee, which includes city council and county commission members, did just that. Resisting calls from the Interneighborhood Council, which has taken up the cell-tower regulations as an issue, for a top-to-bottom revisiting of the rules, the planning committee told Medlin’s staff to propose only a limited rewrite. Committee members suggested they might consider such changes as special approval standards for towers and more notice of demonstrations of their proposed height.

The limited rewrite seems a good compromise. One complicating factor has been Medlin’s persuasive argument that a complete rewrite would divert his already overloaded staff from other priorities.

The INC, while reiterating its concern over how the “concealed” towers are approved, gave the green light to the compromise scope of work. “Essentially, we are going along with what the staff is recommending,” INC spokesman Tom Miller said.

While acknowledging the depths of concern – and the potential for truly inappropriate cell-tower siting – we’re glad officials have settled on limited, and achievable, revisions.

It’s hard to escape the fact cell towers have become as much a part of our landscape as overhead power lines – even more unsightly, but generally if grudgingly accepted – have been for generations.

Councilman Don Moffitt pointed to that reality Wednesday.

“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.

We must live with, as congenially as possible, the source of those signals, even if at times we may see them as “cursed towers.”