Commentary

Donna Rudolph: Neighbors offer ‘pine on steroids’ cell-tower alternative

January 31, 2014 

Is a “pine-on-steroids” cell tower coming to a street near you?

Not In Durham without your say-so, if members of Durham’s long-standing neighborhood network, The InterNeighborhood Council (INC), have their way.

We in the INC don’t deny we’re hooked on wireless communication, but neighborhoods are fed up with local regulations indifferent to their concerns for personal and property safety and the aesthetic appeal of their homes and communities. They want alternatives to the obtrusive monopines accompanied by a corral of diesel-powered generators that, since 2004, Durham has allowed in residential areas without notification of residents because administrators claim tree-towers, twice as tall as nearby trees, are “concealed.”

Three neighborhoods who opposed the mega-pine Durham planners approved on 751 South – highly visible and potentially unsafe to the right-of-way and trunk gas lines below it – launched a campaign to revise Durham’s cell tower rules.

In 2013, the issue went Durham-wide. In a formal resolution to local governments, INC’s multi-member clout called for new wireless regulations specifically for residential zones. Planning’s September amendment offered superficial changes, so neighborhoods wrote their own. They studied wireless regulations of other North Carolina communities (resident-sensitive Asheville, Wilmington, Orange County), heard what carriers and tower companies want (towers 150-199 feet), and listened to neighbors (asking: Who decides where cell towers go? How close ought towers be to homes? Who’s responsible in case of accidents? What happens if towers are unsafe or abandoned? If our neighborhood needs better wireless service how do we blend it in?).

By Jan 1, 2014, dedicated volunteers on INC’s Zoning/Land-Use Committee presented “Suggestions for New Durham Unified Development (UDO) Wireless Communication Facilities (WCF) Regulations, ed. 6, Jan. 1, 2014.” Details at bit.ly/1k1zwHu.

The suggested changes aren’t a wholesale replacement of Durham’s existing wireless ordinance; they apply to residential (R) zones and to a 450 foot “buffer zone” in adjacent non R zoned property. Key changes in Durham’s cell tower regulations INC would make to empower residents and protect residential zones are:

• Replace staff approval by requiring a Special Use Permit issued by the Board of Adjustment, which includes notification of property owners for a public hearing and an opportunity to view balloon tests illustrating the visibility of a tower at its proposed site.

• Institute context – existing uses at a specific location – rather than “concealed” as the overriding factor in determining compatibility of a tower and its equipment with surrounding structures and activities.

• Balance the wireless industry’s demand to satisfy users with residents’ concern about aesthetic and safety impacts by establishing a height maximum of 120 foot in R and special rural residential (RR) zones, despite industry’s pressure for towers 150 feet up.

• Implement generous non-reducible 300 foot setbacks between towers, residences, and trunk ground utilities; require ample fence and vegetative buffers, and tower liability insurance.

By more restrictive visibility and compatibility standards plus the public hearing and third-party review required for approval of all R zone applications versus the no-hassle administrative-only track allowing up to 180 foot towers in non R zones, the neighborhoods’ proposal incentivizes the industry away from residences. Isn’t that mission accomplished?

In February local officials weigh these changes. If they benefit you or your neighbors, with a click or a call ( mailto:Council@DurhamNC.gov919-560-1200; mailto:commissioners@dconc.gov919-560-0026), you can tell them all: “I live at ... and support the INC resident-friendly cell tower changes.”

Donna Rudolph is the Eagle’s Pointe community’s representative to The InterNeighborhood Council.

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