City eases cell tower rules despite objections

By Tom Joyce

May 6, 2014

More cell towers could be popping up in Mount Airy due to action by city officials to ease restrictions for the structures. But not everyone was on board with that.

As she had at a previous meeting when the issue was first raised, Commissioner Shirley Brinkley objected to proposed zoning changes aimed at lessening the allowable distance between towers and nearby homes which the city council voted on Thursday.

“I think it’s fine the way it is,” Brinkley said of an existing requirement prohibiting a tower from being located no closer than 500 feet from any existing dwelling — unless that residence is on the same parcel of land as the tower.

Brinkley was responding to a proposal to allow cell towers to be placed near homes at a distance no closer than the height of the tower, plus 50 feet. This meant the space between a dwelling and a 200-foot tower, for example, would have to be 250 feet.

The South Ward commissioner said she understood the motivation for the change, with cell phone technology becoming more sophisticated and coinciding with a need for reliable transmissions — hence more towers.

“But we’re a small town in a small space,” Brinkley added.

Andy Goodall, a city planner, explained that the proposal before the council represented a way to help meet demand.

“We’ve had several requests in the last month (for cell towers) to go on water towers,” Goodall said. “This is just a way to make it a little bit easier,” he added of their possible placement in other areas around town.

People might prefer that the structures be located out in the country, the planner pointed out, but there is demand for them in the city limits which represents business, or lease, opportunities for property owners.

Proposal Tweaked

The board of commissioners voted 4-1 against a motion by Brinkley to maintain the existing distance requirements.

But they also altered the proposal, after a lengthy discussion, deciding that towers must have a setback distance from all property lines and rights of way — as measured from ground level — of one foot for each height of tower, plus an additional 50 feet.

This struck down what had been brought to the table, the requirement that a tower can be no closer than the height of the tower plus 50 feet from any existing dwelling — excluding homes located on the same parcel as the tower.

The change stemmed from a question by Commissioner Jon Cawley as to whether the intent of regulation involves protecting people from themselves, given that someone might willingly allow a tower on their land.

“The adjacent property is what concerns me,” said the board’s Steve Yokeley.

Board members voted unanimously to approve the change in tower rules as part of a package with several other zoning measures affecting mobile homes, signage and more.

The permitted distance from a property line of 50 feet plus the height of the tower should safeguard neighboring residents’ homes and outbuildings, according to Goodall, the city planner.

Goodall said that in researching the issue, he learned that cell towers are constructed in sections that are designed to break apart and fall to the ground rather than being lifted in the air and moved during high winds. This will prevent a situation in which a tower lands on a neighbor’s garage, for instance, unless “an act of God” is involved, he said.

The standard size for a cell tower nowadays is 195 feet, Goodall explained, since any exceeding 200 feet must be equipped with lights — thereby increasing construction costs.

Goodall further mentioned that in updating rules for Mount Airy, ordinances in other communities were studied.

The planner also attempted to allay fears that cell towers will begin dotting the city’s landscape. He said that in addition to the distance requirement, the municipality has about 20 other regulations governing cell tower placement — including one stating that towers may be no closer than a half-mile from each other.

Among other rules, no tower can be painted or have a color “considered obnoxious or offensive,” and a tower must be enclosed by a chain-link fence at least 8 feet high containing 90 percent opaque screening that is 6 feet high.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.