Commissioners were hesitant to give their pre-ordained support for wireless internet towers, however. To do so would be bypassing the usual public input and vetting process that cell towers are subject to. The rationale: the lack of high-speed internet is so critical that towers providing wireless internet should be held to a lesser standard to help advance the cause.
The pitch came from the county’s economic development director, Rich Price, who claimed the existing review process for towers was a burden at best and prohibitive at worst for start-up wireless internet companies.
“The initiative is so important to Jackson County,” Price said. “We certainly want to be an advocate for something as important as the proliferation of broadband throughout the county.”
County Planner Michael Poston also lent his voice to the cause, talking about the public benefit wireless internet towers would provide in bringing high-speed internet to areas that don’t have it now.
“We know it is a needed service,” Poston said. “This begins to bridge this gap for getting broadband out into more rural locations.”
Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said he would be hesitant to make blanket endorsements or render special consideration to any tower given the level of public interest over towers recently.
“One of the big campaign topics was about towers on ridge tops,” McMahan said. “We want to make sure we aren’t having this big Eiffel tower structure that comes off the ridge top that looks like crap.”
Despite the greater good of providing high-speed internet to rural areas, McMahan wasn’t sure about creating a different set of rules for them to play by.
“Broadband access to the internet is critical, and I want to do anything we can to make it more accessible to citizens. But at the same time, I don’t care if it is broadcasting wireless signal or telephone service — a tower is a tower is a tower,” McMahan said. “For us to say we are willing to exempt this tower because it provides internet service that’s much needed but not this one because it’s telephone, I don’t see much difference.”
Helping the cause
In particular, Price had asked commissioners to endorse the construction of 11 towers by the local start-up venture SkyFi.
SkyFi is seeking a federal grant to pay for the towers. Price told commissioners it would help the company’s chance of landing the grant if the county gave its blessing to the towers in advance.
“We don’t want to say ‘We want this funding but there’s no guarantee these towers are going to be able to go up,’” Price said. “They want to see the ability to mitigate any potential hurdles that come up.”
However, the commissioners weren’t willing to give a blanket endorsement of 11 wireless internet towers on the spot without any inkling of where they were being proposed, how tall they would be or how visible they would be.
Towers are a controversial issue in Jackson County and prone to public opposition over marred view sheds.
To pledge upfront support for 11 wireless internet towers would circumvent the public input process and be politically risky.
In a follow-up interview, Price said he was just floating the idea from an economic development perspective.
He did not see the request as asking for special treatment or favoritism for a particular project at the expense of public input and oversight.
“I don’t think that’s a fair assessment,” Price said.
At the same time, Price said he hoped commissioners would support the project.
“We are asking them to look favorably on this particular initiative,” Price said.
While commissioners wouldn’t give the towers a predetermined stamp of approval, they told Price he could include non-committal language in the grant application, signaling support for the project in theory, but not individual towers.
Meanwhile, County Planner Michael Poston suggested county commissioners might want to reconsider whether wireless internet towers should be subject to the same approval process as cell towers.
Cell towers have to go through an extensive public hearing process and garner final approval by the board of commissioners, plus pay a $4,000 application fee.
Wireless internet towers are usually shorter, thinner and less visible or obtrusive on the view shed, Poston said.
“When you mention the word tower, there will always be some negative reaction,” said Travis Lewis, president of SkyFi. “But once our towers go up, most people don’t even know they are up. I just need right above the tree line.”
Poston asked commissioners if they would really want to have 11 public hearings, and make SkyFi pay 11 permit fees for each of its 11 towers.
Poston asked whether commissioners would be willing to exempt wireless internet towers under a certain height. McMahan said that idea sounded more amenable to him than a blanket exemption.
“Once it crosses a threshold it would require a hearing,” McMahan said.
Such an exemption for wireless internet towers was considered by the county last year during a rewrite of the cell tower ordinance, but for some reason, didn’t make the final cut. Poston is new and wasn’t here during the rewrite, and so he couldn’t say why.
All Poston could say with certainty was that a draft version of the cell ordinance — of which there were many during the prolonged rewrite — exempted wireless internet towers up to 120 feet tall.
“Somewhere along the way, that wasn’t included in the final version that was approved,” Poston said.
Economic Development Director Rich Price said he thinks it may have been struck inadvertently and should be put back in.
“We believe there was intent in the original revision to the cell tower ordinance that would exclude broad band towers from the full review process and perhaps the full fee. But that did not make it into the final version or was omitted,” Price said.
A lot was omitted and changed during the 18-month-long rewrite, however.
Jackson County’s planning board spent more than 18 months on a cell tower rewrite. A new version was passed last August, following a somewhat convoluted rewrite that changed course mid-stream.
When the rewrite was first launched, the planning board intended to loosen cell tower rules. But the direction changed mid-stream following a commissioners election, with newly elected commissioners more inclined to shore up protections for view sheds rather than water them down.
Poston conceded in a follow-up interview that it could have been intentionally struck.
“I would have to do more research to trace back what iteration that language was removed, but it was in there and at some point got taken out,” Poston said.
Back to the drawing board
Although the ink has barely dried on a rewrite of Jackson’s cell tower ordinance, another rewrite could be on the table again already. And not just because of this issue, Poston said. The tower review process built into the ordinance played out in an excessively cumbersome and convoluted process six months ago involving a proposed tower in Cashiers — the first to come up since the rewrite was approved.
“When you apply an ordinance in any situation you find out things — the language looks good and feels good but the language doesn’t work out the way you thought it would on paper,” Poston said. “We don’t need to look at a total rewrite, but we need to figure out what parts of it worked well and what parts could be improved.”
Poston said he isn’t advocating for wireless internet towers to circumvent the public input process.
“You are trying to find a way to balance the needs of the community,” Poston said. “Here’s a technology that is becoming more and more necessary as a part of people’s lives. We are looking at ways to expand the availability of that service.”
By the same token, as demand to move data increases exponentially, so does the need for towers. Policies crafted today should be prepared for a proliferation of towers across the landscape in coming decades, and set the stage for what that should look like.
“We have been told as planners to expect more towers to be going up,” Poston said.
In the meantime, ordinances regulating towers will probably be in a constant state of flux as society searches for the right balance.
“Attitudes in the way we look at development issues change. Pick an issue and you see that over time,” Poston said. “The beauty behind land development regulation is that communities get to decide what appropriate regulations are. Those can grow and change over time as new technologies emerge or new development concerns arise.”