Cell-tower rules still up in the air

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 4, 2014 

— Permitting rules for cellphone towers remained up in the air last week, and probably will stay there for quite some time to come.

Presented the City-County Planning Department’s comparison of its own proposals for rule revisions with an alternative set from the InterNeighborhood Council, the Joint City-County Planning Committee (JCCPC) made no decision, concluding only that there is more work to be done.

“It’s my sense ... you’d like us to go back and do a wholistic reevaluation of the current standards,” said Planning Director Steve Medlin.

As a starting point, Councilman Don Moffitt suggested that planning staff have a conversation with INC representatives and with people in the cellphone business on their concerns and preferred approaches to changing the way Durham approves tower permits.

“I would concur,” Medlin said. “I don't think people have had the opportunity to present information they want to present, both pro and con, on what we should consider.”

Medlin said a reevaluation will be a months-long process, just to reach agreements that can be worked into draft regulations the JCCPC can support and send into the public-review process required for changes in the city-county development ordinance.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Dolly Fehrenbacher, one of the south-Durham homeowners whose opposition to a proposed “wireless communication facility” off N.C. 751 set off the current controversy more than a year ago.

Controversy

Time, along with public input on cell-tower permits, has been a factor in the months-long controversy. In particular, committee members have been concerned with the time demanded of planning-department employees to review the rules, revise them, take comment and then review and revise some more.

“The staff has quite a few other obligations,” said Mayor-Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, the JCCPC chairwoman. “We need to try to get this off their plate as soon as we possibly can. In all honesty, it’s been a long long journey.”

Donna Rudolph, one of those who worked for several months on the InterNeighborhood Council proposal, said that should not be a concern.

“Does this really boil down to whether staff has time to do it?” Rudolph said after the committee meeting. “Do lawmakers appreciate the number of times citizens have (spoken at public meetings)?

“These are the voices of the engaged neighborhoods. What does it say if you don’t take them seriously?”

Public input, though, was important for Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

“We want to make sure citizens have input when there is going to be a wireless communication tower in their backyards,” Jacobs said. “That's what I hope we can come up with, something that will protect citizens.”

Public participation

Both the planning department and InterNeighborhood Council proposals provide for public involvement in permitting, but the INC lays out a public-review process for towers in urban residential areas and a simpler, administrative-only process for those elsewhere.

Under the planning department proposal, fake pine trees would no longer be considered “concealed,” and would become subject to a public hearing by the Board of Adjustment, where citizens may raise objections on several grounds, including safety, depressed property values and “harmony with the area.”

The two proposals have a number of other points of disagreement, and points that left some committee members still uncomfortable.

“I’m still confused about a lot of things,” said Jacobs.

“There's a lot of weeds here, but I think there are a lot of points the INC recommendations raised that rate careful consideration,” Mofitt said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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