Durham cell-tower rules back on the table Wednesday morning

jwise@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2014 

  • The appeal

    The Good Neighbors of 751, a group representing several neighborhoods in southern Durham, have appealed the approval for a 150-foot “concealed” cellphone tower (i.e., one disguised as a pine tree) next to St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church on N.C. 751. A Board of Adjustment hearing on the appeal is scheduled for Feb. 25, having been postponed from the original Jan. 28 date.

  • This morning

    An update on proposals for changing Durham’s rules for “wireless communication facilities” (i.e., cellphone towers) is scheduled for the Joint City-County Planning Committee during its meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the second-floor Committee Room in City Hall. The meeting is open to the public, but public comment is allowed only at the presiding committee member’s discretion.

    The City-County Planning Department’s proposal is available at bit.ly/1foy1zL; an alternative drafted by the InterNeighborhood Council is available at bit.ly/1k1zwHu.

— After a two-month timeout for settling of details, two rival propositions for cellphone-tower permit rules are back on elected officials’ table this morning.

•  In one corner, the City-County Planning Department has a draft drawn up that revises current rules along lines county commissioners and City Council members said they wanted last September ( bit.ly/1foy1zL).

•  In the other, the InterNeighborhood Council has a plan, drawn up in collaboration with cellphone industry representatives, that comes at cell-tower regulations from a totally different direction ( bit.ly/1k1zwHu).

•  The planning department’s draft retains an existing distinction between cell towers that look like what they are and towers that are “concealed” – made up to look like trees, whether or not the disguise in fact conceals their identity. Concealed tower permits are decided by the planning director, with no public input; unconcealed towers have to get Board of Adjustment approval in a public hearing.

•  The INC draft distinguishes by location, ignoring concealment. Basically, it requires Board of Adjustment approval for towers in residential areas and allows the faster, simpler administrative process – as well as the extra height the industry wants – anywhere else.

A city-county planning committee of commissioners and council members are due for a report at its 9:30 meeting at City Hall and could – or could not – start settling a question waiting more than a year for an answer: How much say do citizens have on letting cell towers go up in their neighborhoods?

It’s up to that Joint City-County Planning Committee to decide whether either draft is ready to go on for City Council and county commissioners’ approval or rejection. Or, the committee could postpone any decision and send both sides back to deal with their differences.

The issue arose when homeowners in several southern Durham learned, to their surprise, that the Sprint cellphone company planned to build a 120-foot cellphone tower, “concealed” as a pine tree, at Massey Chapel Road and N.C. 751.

Upset that they had had no previous notification and no opportunity to comment on the tower proposal, some of the residents organized as The Good Neighbors of 751 and began lobbying the city to change its cell-tower permitting rules to provide for public notice and public comment.

Mayor Bill Bell was receptive, the planning department drafted some changes that did not satisfy the Good Neighbors, or cell-phone industry spokesmen, and in September the Joint City-County Planning Committee told planners to try again.

The committee also advised the residents and industry to confer and see if they could come to a meeting of minds on their respective issues. Their conferences brought in the InterNeighborhood Council, which took the lead in drafting rules to meet both sides’ needs: protection for neighborhoods and an eased approval process for tower permits.

However, that proposal was not ready when the JCCPC took up cell-tower rules again in December and, despite exasperation from both committee members and planners – whose revised revisions were finished – the committee postponed action and ordered a status report for this morning’s meeting.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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