Cell tower rules rewrite due for Durham officials’ review

jwise@newsobserver.comDecember 3, 2013 

  • What’s next

    The Joint City-Council Planning Committee meets at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Committee Room on the second floor of City Hall. “Wireless Communication Facilities” is the eighth item on the agenda, with an hour reserved for presentation and discussion.

    JCCPC meetings are open to the public as spectators, but public comment is allowed only at the chairman’s discretion.

Cellphone towers dressed up as trees wouldn’t be legally “concealed” in Durham any more, if city and county authorities adopt the planning department’s latest version of cell-tower regulations.

What’s more, cellphone tower owners will have to carry liability insurance, and put their towers far enough inside their property lines that no neighbor’s property would be hit if the tower falls down.

Those, and some other, provisions are in a re-draft of new rules for towers ( bit.ly/1amDjHS) up for a hearing by county commissioners and City Council members Wednesday.

Whether the new provisions satisfy the concerns homeowners and industry representatives have raised remains to be seen, though.

•  The new proposal retains a 120-foot height limit, which Walter Wells, a consultant working for AT&T, said “will not work” for wireless communication companies, which need taller towers to meet the needs of a “growing medium” for Internet connections as well as voice.

•  The new proposal requires a “quasi-judicial” hearing for cell towers in residential areas, but in such hearings comment is strictly limited to whether a permit request meets the letter of the law. Frustration over a Board of Adjustment ruling on a south-Durham tower has led nearby residents to sue the city and county. The case goes to court Dec. 9.

One of the plaintiffs, Dorothy Croom, complained about citizens’ lack of voice at a November City Council work session.

“This is not right,” she said. “We are concerned about our neighborhood, we are concerned about our safety, we are concerned about being robbed of our property value.”

Croom and her neighbors first brought their concerns to the City Council in late 2012, after learning to their surprise of a 120-foot cellphone tower, “concealed” as a pine tree, at Massey Chapel Road and N.C. 751. They asked the city to change permitting rules to provide for public notice and public comment.

Mayor Bill Bell referred the request to the city-county planning department. Meanwhile, planners found that some of Durham’s development rules were non-compliant with new state laws and drafted appropriate revisions. Neighbors complained that those revisions left citizens with even less say on towers than they had had before.

Over objections, the City Council approved the revised rules but told planners to take another look at cell-tower permitting. County commissioners, though, withheld approval, leaving their shared planning department with two sets of rules to go by.

By then, the N.C. 751 tower had the planning director’s approval but neighbors appealed it to the Board of Adjustment. That body upheld the approval, and the neighbors, claiming their concerns had not been heard, filed suit.

In September, planners presented permitting revisions to the Joint City-County Planning Committee of council members and county commissioners. After hearing from residents and cellphone industry representatives (whom planners had not previously consulted), the committee sent planners back to think some more and come back with a re-rewrite.

The committee could refer the draft back to the planning staff for further review; approve it for consideration by the full City Council and Board of County Commissioners; or put off doing anything until its next meeting, in February.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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