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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 16:12

Sylva may be stuck with cell tower

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The Sylva Town Board opposes the construction of a 195-foot-high cellular communications tower on the main commercial drag of N.C. 107, but a state law passed in August may allow the tower to go up anyway.

The cell tower, planned by Pegasus Tower Company of Cedar Bluff, Va., would dominate the ridgeline next to the unfinished Comfort Inn adjacent to Andy Shaw Ford.

Pegasus originally received a building permit for the tower in June 2008, but because construction did not begin within six months, the permit expired.

Sylva amended its cell tower ordinance in November 2008 to conform to Jackson County’s ordinance. The ordinance stipulates a maximum height of 120 feet, which would rule out the tower Pegasus plans to build.

The Sylva board met in closed session last month to discuss legal matters concerning the issue and determined they had grounds to deny Pegasus a new permit.

“We think we’re on firm legal ground to deny it,” Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said.

Moody said the board considered the tower a safety issue because a “fall zone” had not been included in its design plans.

But Pegasus believes the North Carolina Permit Extension Act of 2009, a state law intended to offset onerous permitting requirements during the down economy, applies to cell tower construction. The company plans to build the tower without a new permit from the town of Sylva.

David Owens, professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government, said Pegasus’ permit is likely still valid.

“If that permit was valid at any time during that last three years, then it’s still valid,” Owens said.

Companies forced to put construction projects on hold during the recession would typically see their permits lapse. The state bill was intended to save developers from having to go through the permit process over again when they were finally ready to proceed.

Owens said the Permit Extension Act defines development so broadly that the construction of cell towers is included. The statute essentially delays the mandatory start period for development projects initiated between January 2008 and December 2010.

Following the logic of the bill, Pegasus would have six months from December 2010 to start work on the tower under the terms of its current permit.

Sylva board member Chris Matheson said she and her fellow board members felt strongly that the tower shouldn’t be constructed in the proposed location.

“I don’t know how much there is to say other than that the town is vehemently opposed to it,” Matheson said.

Matheson also said the town is working with Pegasus to see if both parties can agree on an alternative site for the tower.

“We’re working with Pegasus to see if we could provide a location that would be attractive to them but more in line with that the community needs,” Matheson said.

Sylva Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower confirmed that the town’s attorney, Eric Ridenour, has engaged in discussions with lawyers from Pegasus to resolve the issue.

If Pegasus and the town cannot come to an amicable resolution on the issue, Owens believes Sylva must have grounds other than an expired permit to prevent the project from going forward.

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