DURHAM — Bombarded with new comments and information last week, county commissioners and City Council members put off dealing with cellphone-tower permits until April.
Between now and then, they tasked the already overburdened City-County Planning Department with figuring out what they should do with it all.
“I need the world to stop turning here,” said Planning Director Steve Medlin.
He got his wish, in a way. The Joint City-County Planning Committee decreed that time was up for outside input.
“We've gotten a lot of input and at some point we do need to stop, and now would be a good point,” said County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.
Changing the approval rules for “wireless communication facilities” has been before the planning department and the planning committee (JCCPC), made up of council members and commissioners, since last summer, recognizing some residents’ displeasure that the public has little or no say in whether a tower gets built in their neighborhoods.
Residents have been lobbying officials for change since 2012. Planners presented proposals to address their concerns at the JCCPC meeting in December, but they left the residents dissatisfied. By then, cellphone industry spokesmen, whom planners had not consulted before drafting new regulations, had told committee members that they had their own problems with the rules.
The committee had encouraged residents and industry to confer and come up with ideas for mutual satisfaction. They did, collaborating with the InterNeighborhood Council, and delivered their own set of rule revisions, totally different in approach from the planning department’s.
By meeting time last Wednesday, planners and committee members also had new comments from the Carolinas Wireless Association, and in the meeting there were more comments and concerns from the public.
“Citizens of Durham are being robbed of their property value and they have no say-so,” said homeowner Dorothy Croom.
Clearly exasperated, Committee Chairwoman Cora Cole-McFadden passed out a timeline of the issue to show how much work had already been done by city-county staff.
“We've done an awful lot of work on this, it's time to move it,” she said.
But Councilman Don Moffitt pointed out that it was the committee that asked the neighbors and industry spokesmen to come up with their ideas.
“I’m concerned there's momentum to discard the work we encouraged them to do,” he said.
Medlin said his department had already spent half again more time on it than allotted in the year’s to-do agenda, and assessing the new comments and residents’ proposal would mean a lot more time taken away from other priorities.
“We can do it, but if we do it something else is going to have to come off my work program,” Medlin said.
And, assessing the new information; responding to it; translating whatever the commissioners and council members then decide they want into legally workable language, taking more public and officials’’ comment; rewriting; and going through the process for actual adoption by the city and county elective bodies would mean the new rules could not take effect before spring 2015.
“Those changes are more massive than you would tend to think,” Medlin said. “We need guidance.”
Guidance was to have a “white paper” on the residents’ proposal and the industry comments ready for the committee’s next meeting, April 2.
“That's a basic analysis,” Medlin said. “We're not going to sit down and draft the language.”