Jackson commissioners OK 185-foot radio tower
A unanimous vote from the Jackson County commissioners will allow construction of a 185-foot radio tower in Cullowhee to move forward, but the decision came after vocal opposition from six of the seven county residents who spoke at a 3 p.m. public hearing on Monday, Nov. 27.
“What is a homeowner to do other than stand here and voice my objection and plead with y’all to consider what this is going to do to our property values, being directly located across the street?” said Cheryl Ruderman, who owns property adjacent to the site of the proposed tower. “We basically now have an unusable lot of land. That’s how I feel about it.”
The tower, which Western Carolina University hopes to build atop 3,680-foot Brown Mountain, would serve to broadcast the campus radio station from a wider-ranging frequency than the station’s current home on 90.5 FM. The university applied for a switch to 95.3 FM more than a decade ago, and when it received word from the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 that it would receive the frequency, leadership set about deciding what to do.
After examining the options, the university decided that building a new tower and access road was too expensive to warrant the benefit to be gained. But as it announced its intention to abandon plans for a new tower, it began to hear from entities that were disappointed by the news.
“When we heard of the other needs that a taller tower could meet, we thought we’d come to you and see what you thought,” Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, told commissioners Nov. 27. “Emergency services will be on the tower — if it’s constructed — at no cost, because that’s the greatest greater good that comes from this property.”
Internet, cellular and television station antennae could also co-locate on a 185-foot tower, though no agreements are yet in place with providers for any of those services. The project will likely cost about $500,000.
County ordinance would allow a maximum tower height of less than 100 feet in the location proposed, unless WCU went through the conditional use permit process. The CUP process is a rigorous one, and it would take time — something WCU doesn’t have. The FCC requires that broadcast on the 95.3 FM frequency begin by the end of May. Otherwise, WCU will lose its rights to that frequency.
Opposition to construction
The shortening timeline led WCU to ask that commissioners waive several requirements listed in the wireless communications ordinance, including the maximum tower height, the conditional use process, the $5,000 application fee, the requirement that the tower not be visible from the road and the requirement that the tower be built as a monopole rather than as a lattice structure.
No public hearing or notice to adjacent property owners is required for commissioners to grant such a waiver. However, commissioners decided during their Nov. 14 work session to notify property owners and hold a public hearing anyway, though the Nov. 27 public hearing was held in the afternoon rather than in the evening as is typical and scheduled with less notice than would otherwise be required.
“The process doesn’t require a public hearing, but we felt that we at least at the bare minimum should send the adjacent property owners a letter and let you folks know what’s going on that we’re considering this waiver,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
However, multiple people expressed their dissatisfaction with the timeframe as part of their comments.
“I just received this letter Saturday before Thanksgiving. I happened to be up here with my children for Thanksgiving, which is the only reason I received this letter in time to come to this meeting,” Ruderman said.
Roy Burnette, a Sylva resident who owns the WRGC and WHBN radio stations in Sylva and Bryson City, also spoke to the ramped-up timeline and questioned whether all the waivers requested were really necessary.
“I feel the university can have their FM radio station on the air before their construction permit expires, and if the university desires to construct a cell phone tower then the regulations of this ordinance can be satisfied because there will be no May 2018 deadline,” he said.
Other reasons to oppose the cell tower hinged primarily on concerns about dropping property values and effects of cell tower radiation.
“What’s going to happen to our property values? Who’s going to buy my house if I put it up for sale and I have a cell tower up there?” asked Susan Cooper, whose property abuts Brown Mountain.
Cooper also expressed concern about the environmental impacts of tower construction.
“It devastates me to think that this pristine area is going to be taken up just to meet a deadline for May of 2018,” she said. “It seems like a total waste of money.”
Several commenters brought up the issue of radiation, questioning the health impacts of living near a cell tower.
“Radiation is a concern,” said area resident Jon Phillips. “The last study was done 21 years ago. I wonder if there’s been a study on how much radiation is coming off the equipment up there.”
“This is obviously a big, big impact to our resale value, but that’s secondary. After homeschooling kids for years we have to think about can we not do that safely,” agreed Michael Evans, who lives about 400 yards from the site of the proposed tower.
“There are families somewhere between 500 and 600 feet of this thing, with children, dogs and animals, and I’m just concerned about that,” added Mel Livernois, who lives about 2,500 feet from the site.
Research on the connection between cell phone towers and cancer is limited, according to an article from the American Cancer Society, but cell phone towers are not known to have any health effects.
“Some people have expressed concern that living, working or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems,” reads the article, which is available at www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/cellular-phone-towers.html. “At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea. In theory, there are some important points that would argue against cellular phone towers being able to cause cancer.”
Reasons for a “yes” vote
Granting the waiver required that commissioners find that the request is justified and necessary to prevent “unnecessary hardship” and that it would have no significant effect on the health, safety and welfare of the county, its residents, property owners or service providers.
“I feel like we have discussed those and we made those conclusions from our discussion,” said Commissioner Mickey Luker, referring to the Nov. 14 work session. “My district, that’s going to be one of the districts most vastly impacted by this for residents not able to have wireless communications and not able to have cell phone coverage, but most importantly the thing that stuck out that I was an advocate for in the beginning was safety.”
Radio communications in that area are exceedingly limited, the county’s Emergency Management Director Tod Dillard said, and building the tower would help “immensely.”
While public comment was overwhelmingly anti-tower, one area resident spoke to that need in her comments.
Edith Lyons, who lives at the end of White Rock Road off of Cullowhee Mountain Road, said that it’s not unusual for the telephone line to go out for days at a time, and there’s no cell service to be had.
“We have to drive two-and-a-half miles down a gravel road to try to use a cell phone. I appreciate the young woman’s concern about the property and the radiation,” she said of Cooper’s comments, “but I’m also concerned about the 13 families that live on White Rock Road and many others up Cullowhee Mountain that don’t have cell service.”
Luker moved to grant WCU’s request, with the group of neighbors who’d come for the meeting leaving before commissioners launched into the final discussion that resulted in a unanimous yes vote.
The neighbors didn’t leave, however, instead standing together talking outside the boardroom. When Byers exited following the meeting’s adjournment, he was met with a flurry of questions as to why the tower had to be in that spot, and not somewhere further into the 9-acre property owned by the Western Carolina University Endowment Fund; why the tower had to be so high; and whether, were he in their shoes, he’d want such a structure in his backyard.
Cell towers and radio towers are often the objects of such controversy, with everyone wanting access to cellular, internet and emergency services but nobody wanting to see the structures required to broadcast these signals out their back window.
Jackson County adopted a rewrite of its wireless communications ordinance in 2015 to address these issues, passing an updated version of the ordinance in 2016.