After two-months of heated discussion over a monopole behind Learwood Square, city officials are looking to revise telecommunication tower laws.
During the discussion about the proposed 150-foot-tall Clearwire Corp. monopole, it came to light the city has not reviewed – for almost 10 years – its planning and zoning code section regarding telecommunication towers. Given the updates in technology and the growing demand for coverage, officials felt it was time for a review.
Balancing the need for new technology and of the community is difficult. Joe Archacki, chairman of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Board, said bringing in new technology is good for development. Studies have shown bringing in broadband is good for retaining businesses and enticing new business. It also encourages entrepreneurship for home-based businesses, he said.
Cell phone towers or WiFi towers, he said, are another story. There are alternatives to towers used by other cities, he said. Also, with TimeWarner Cable and Wide Open West providing Internet services, he questioned the need for a WiFi monopole.
“Technology is good for economic development, but obviously towers may not be the best alternative for improving the quality of life and quality of space,” he said, adding he agrees with the city’s review of the code to “come up with an alternative that makes sense for our community.”
The Public Services Committee met Thursday to discuss possible changes to the code, particularly the timing of an independent consultant coming in to review an application. Councilman at-Large Marty O’Donnell, chair of the committee, said in an interview now is the right time to look at the code because of a November joint meeting of the Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Some of the questions that need an answer, O’Donnell said, are:
- Should the hiring of a consultant be mandatory,
- What should the scope of the consultant’s report be,
- Should the consultant be hired before Planning Commission,
- What should setbacks be for certain areas,
- What would be the definition of necessity,
- Should the notification practices for public hearings change?
Ward 4 Councilman Dave Kos said council should tweak what comes out of this, but that it should be up to the Planning Commission and zoning and engineering departments to make the primary changes because they are the experts.
“For council members, myself included, to have the ultimate input on this planning issue would be … a real mistake,” he said.
The changes don’t need to be drastic, he added, but they should create uniform requirements, echoing his argument from the Oct. 25 council meeting where the Clearwire monopole was rejected 5-1. Clearwire was required to provide information AT&T was not for the monopole at City Hall 10 months ago, he said. If the city wants to specify the testing requirements, he said, that’s fine, but it needs to be clear for companies wanting to operate in the city.
There appears to be wide support on council for hiring an independent consultant before a tower application makes its way to Planning Commission. When the city hired the Center for Municipal Solutions/McKenna Associates to review the Clearwire monopole, the application had already received approval from the Planning Commission and was being discussed by City Council. The commission determines if an application meets all of the city’s planning and zoning codes. As council members did not consider themselves experts in this field, they hired a consultant, admittedly late in the game.
“The study process should take place before Planning Commission gets it,” Council President Greg Zilka said, adding it would provide commission members with more information to make their decision.
It may be possible to make the consultant’s report happen automatically, rather than require council’s approval each time, Zilka said. To do this, the city would need to hire a consultant on a retainer before any more applications come in.
Kos agreed, saying he had buyer’s remorse for hiring CMS/McKenna Associates when council did.
“If I could have that vote back, I would,” he said.
One challenge for revising the code is adapting to new technology. There was discussion of 3G versus 4G technology and the technical needs for each with Clearwire’s proposed monopole. Zilka said he’s not sure how to create language that will remain relevant as new technology comes on the scene.
“We would have to consult with people to see if any language rewrite would be broad enough to accommodate different types of technology,” he said.
O’Donnell suggested revisiting the language every two to three years to keep up with advances in technology.
Determining a way to keep prevent the situation with the proposed monopole and Meadow Vistas from happening again should be part of their conversation, Zilka said.
Because of the apartments’ zoning, the setback for the apartments is less than the amount required for a residentially zoned area. This reasoning angered residents of Meadow Vistas, who argued even though they lived on the same piece of commercial property as Learwood Square, they live in the apartments just like any other in a residential area.
“If it’s a safety issues for one, it should be a safety issue for use on the same parcel,” Zilka said.
The current zoning of the Meadow Vistas apartments as commercial cannot change to residential, Zilka said, because that would require a dedicated driveway only for the apartments. Currently, Meadow Vistas shares a driveway with the loading area for Learwood Square. The only exception would be if a driveway connected to Creekside Lane.
The committee meeting was productive, Kos said, and is only the starting point of what he expects to be months of discussion before arriving at something concrete.
Attorney Weldon Rice, who lives on Harbor Court and opposed the monopole, said he found the meeting’s discussions encouraging. He also said it is comforting to know there are still people committed to this, including his neighbors.
“I was impressed with the diligence and continued efforts of the Public Service Committee to exercise due diligence in reviewing this matter,” he said.
Contact Bryan Wroten at email@example.com