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Jackson’s cell tower ordinance revision softens up

Wireless communications companies could ultimately find Jackson County’s revised cell phone tower ordinance considerably more palatable than the stricter version that appeared to be shaping up this summer. The county planning board seems to be shying away from its previously discussed direction, questioning aspects of the ordinance detailing height and camouflage requirements for towers.

 

“I think the more we ask of these companies, the less likely we are to get towers in places that need them,” said Jackson County Planning Board Chairman Clark Limpkin.

The planning board is currently revising the county’s tower ordinance outlining the rules associated with communication towers. Over the summer — with the planning board leaning toward a height limitation of 120 feet and requirement that towers be concealed by camoflauging techniques — Verizon Wireless scuttled plans to build a tower near Whiteside Cove in Cashiers, pointing specifically to limitations presented by the specter of having to employ a camouflage design. 

When reviewing a draft of the revised ordinance recently, planning board members indicated they would prefer to tweak certain aspects, effectively softening and relaxing the proposed rules. They suggested downgrading some aspects of the regulations to suggestions, not requirements.

“It may work better to encourage and provide incentives rather than to mandate,” said Planning Director Gerald Green, noting the board’s directions on his copy of the draft. 

The height and camouflage aspect of the tower ordinance received the greatest attention during the planning board’s recent discussion of the proposed revisions. Lipkin, particularly, seemed intent to sidestep the concealment requirement. 

“In my opinion, we should not ask them to conceal it unless there’s a reason to conceal it,” Lipkin said. 

The concealment aspect is referenced several times in the draft ordinance. The board has previously discussed how using established concealment techniques — instead of a standard monopole design the structure is disguised as a tree — could make towers less obtrusive. 

Planning board member Sarah Graham pushed for keeping the concealment reference in the section of the ordinance pertaining to visibility issues. She contended the mention that “all new wireless telecommunications facilities shall utilize concealment techniques to the maximum extent possible” could be left intact.

“It doesn’t really hurt to have it in,” Graham said. 

“I think it does hurt to have it in,” Lipkin countered. “What I object to is ‘the maximum extent possible.’ That’s so open ended.”

The board directed Green to rework such wording. The “shall utilize” phrasing is being changed to something more akin to “encouraged to use concealment techniques when feasible.”

Board members also questioned limiting tower heights to 120 feet. That height — lower than towers currently existing in the county — was settled on during previous ordinance revision sessions. 

“We had this discussion and we agreed on 120. Why?” asked Graham.

“Good question,” said Lipkin. “I’ve always thought 120 feet was too small.”

Earlier in the summer, the planning board had decided upon a 120-foot height limit for towers because they felt the towers could still blend in with the average tree canopy height. Exemptions would be allowed if the provider demonstrated a need to go higher. 

“Maybe a more relevant question is not how high above the canopy but ‘is it high enough to be an eyesore?’” Lipkin suggested.

The chairman suggested that the county reach out to cell phone companies and inquire how high they would like to see the towers. Green said he had already had such discussions. 

“The answer is ‘as tall as they can get,’” Green said. “I say, ‘how about 120?’ They say, ‘130 would be better.’ I’m sure if I said ‘130,’ they’d say ‘140.’”

Graham suggested that the height limitation be left at 120 feet. She contended capping the height at that limit — a limit the company could attempt to bypass if need be — would serve as a safeguard for the county.

“If they’re going to want to build the maximum amount possible, the higher our towers are going to be,” Graham said, explaining that it would be better to have a lower limit as the base for starting height negotiations. “It just gives us that protection, instead of automatically having a higher tower.”

The board also discussed portions of the ordinance addressing the work performed prior to actually constructing a communications tower. Specifically, members debated which method should be used to provide some visual measurement of a proposed tower.

Currently the draft ordinance requires both a balloon test — during which a balloon is floated at the height of a proposed tower — and a photo simulation. Board members differed on their preferred visualization methods. 

“A balloon test doesn’t look anything like a tower, obviously,” said board member Tom Rodgers, making a case for the technologically advanced computer-generated photo simulation. “They can take the Eifel Tower and put it in downtown Sylva … they can zoom down on top of it, you can walk around it.”

Chairman Lipkin said he was more comfortable with the tangibility of a balloon test.

“I’d rather see a balloon than a virtual tower,” he said. 

“My recommendation,” Green advised, “would be stay on the safe side and require balloon and computer simulations.”

The planning board will continue its ordinance revision discussions after its recent input is incorporated into the draft. The board will meet next on Oct. 9.

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