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Jackson plays hardball with Verizon over Cashiers cell tower

fr celltowerPublic concerns over the visual blight of a proposed cell tower in the Cashiers area have prompted Verizon Wireless to alter its design for the tower, namely by disguising it to look like a very tall, very big pine tree.

It is an about-face considering Verizon’s initial resistance to a pine-tree-look-alike tower.

But Jackson County was poised to mandate a pine-tree design — as opposed to a single monopole tower — as a condition of the cell tower permit. The county can require so-called “stealth technology” to lessen the visual impact of a tower.

It is up to the discretion of the county planning office, and that’s indeed the route the county was headed when Verizon chose to adopt the pine-tree design voluntarily last week, according to Jackson Planner Gerald Green.

“Given the natural setting of the proposed site, and the views of the site from Whiteside Mountain trails and other locations, the consideration of camouflaging the tower to lessen its visual effect on the environment is required,” Green wrote to Verizon’s cell tower liaisons last Wednesday.

By that afternoon, Green got word that Verizon had agreed to a pine-tree design.

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Residents of the Whiteside Cove area have bombarded the county planning office with emails over the proposed tower in their community. Most residents couched their criticism: they were fans of the tower in this cell-service deprived area but wanted it to blend in as much as possible.

“My husband and I moved here partly because of the beautiful scenery and do not wish to see a cell phone tower sticking up from the trees,” Joan Marsden, a fulltime resident of Cashiers, wrote in an email to the county planning office last week. “If we have to have a cell phone tower, I would much prefer it to be the ‘stealth technology’ tower — the one that looks more like a tree — NOT the white column that is such a visible eyesore.”

More than a dozen similar emails flooded the county in a week’s time.

“One of the attractions to this area are the undisturbed views of the countryside. To have any type of construction that would impact these views would be very disturbing and should not be approved,” wrote Geza and Zauzsanna Wass de Czege, property owners in Whiteside Cove. 

If cell service is a must, “the least would be to insure that the towers blend with the environment” to protect the views “which have been enjoyed since the first settlers moved into the cove,” the couple wrote.

It’s been at least five years since a new cell tower has been proposed in Jackson County. But there have been plenty of requests from cell phone companies wanting to put their antennas on existing towers — a handful in the past month alone.

“They try to maximize the use of the existing towers. It is cheaper to locate on an existing tower than construct a new tower,” Green said.

Jackson, like most counties, actually requires cell phone companies to share tower space with each other. Whoever owns a particular tower is forced to lease antennae space to competing cell companies that want in on the game. And likewise, a cell company wanting to expand coverage can’t erect its own tower if there’s an existing one in the vicinity that fits the bill.

“The goal is to try to minimize the number of towers and consider other options rather than just build a new tower,” Green said.

Verizon is being sent back to the drawing board on other aspects of its application as well. The initial permit application didn’t pass muster, and thus won’t get a public hearing before the Jackson planning board until August.

Green wrote a formal letter to Verizon’s cell tower liaisons last week itemizing several deficiencies in their plan that must be addressed before it can move forward. Those included:

•A written report showing “meaningful efforts” to find an existing tower or structure to house the antennas in lieu of building a new tower.

•An analysis showing why existing towers aren’t suitable to provide service to the area, or showing the absence of towers with coverage in the area.

•Evidence cell service is needed in the area and why this area is being targeted for service as opposed to other high-priority areas that may also lack service.

•Proof why the tower can’t be built somewhere else, namely outside of a residential area. The county’s ordinance bans cell towers in residential areas unless it’s the only way to serve that area.

•A visual impact assessment, including a “zone of visibility map,” photo simulations of before-and-after views of the tower, and a written description of the tower’s visual impact.

•A plan showing how the site on the ground will be screened and equipment sheds will be built to blend in to the surroundings.

•Redesign of the access road leading to the base of the tower. As currently proposed, it is too steep and does not meet county requirements to minimize disturbance.

•Copy of a lease for the property where the tower will be sited.

Green said the county’s cell tower requirements are fairly standard.

“Jackson County’s ordinance is not unique,” Green said.

The Jackson County Planning Board continues its ongoing discussion about revisions to the county’s ordinance addressing cell phone towers during its next meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. July 10 at the Jackson County Justice Center.

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