Published Sunday, December 02, 2012
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
By the time a public hearing is held on an application for a new wireless telecommunications tower – better known as a cell tower – the tower is basically a done deal.
As long as the phone company supporting the tower can show that it needs the tower to fill gaps in coverage, the Coweta County Board of Commissioners is required to approve it under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
When the county denies a special use permit for a tower, it invariably gets sued. And the county always loses.
In 2006, the commissioners repeatedly denied tower applications from T-Mobile. The first was for a tower on Fischer Road. T-Mobile came back with an application for a tower nearby, off Minix Road. That application was denied as well, as was one for a tower on Orren’s Pond Road.
T-Mobile tried again, re-applying for a SUP for a tower on the Fischer Road site. The commissioners once again denied the permit.
Following the denial, T-Mobile sued in federal court. Then-Federal Judge Jack Camp ruled in favor of T-Mobile in 2008, ordering the county to issue permits for the towers on Orren’s Pond and Minix.
Camp ruled that the county’s actions violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
After the lawsuit was filed, the commissioners enacted a moratorium on tower applications, and the county began crafting a new tower ordinance, which is currently in place.
With the new ordinance, the application goes through a consultant who is an expert in radio frequency engineering, signal propagation, the federal law, and the like.
Since the new ordinance went into place, the county has approved all tower applications, and hasn’t been able to even tweak locations at the request of local residents.
The county approved a permit for a tower on Lora Smith Road in late 2010. The privately-owned tower would be primarily used by AT&T.
Neighbor Stephen Guy said that the tower would only be 165 feet from his home. “They’re proposing to do this absolutely as close as they possibly can to my house,” Guy said during the public hearing on the tower permit. The tower was located near the corner of a 10.79-acre tract.
The property owner, Jack Henry, told the commissioners that the property was marshy, and that the tower representatives “had to make a pretty detailed study on where they could put this.”
Henry said that “it is possible they could relocate the pad for the antenna.”
Commissioner Randolph Collins asked if the county could request that the tower be moved to another part of the property.
Zoning Administrator Angela White told Collins at the time that she didn’t think that was possible. “Because of the way the studies are submitted... to do what you are asking to do... I believe you would have to deny this and ask if they would submit to moving the tower,” White said.
The commissioners had approved a tower on Parks Road at the same time they heard the request for the Lora Smith Road tower. They delayed the vote on the Lora Smith tower to see if it would still be needed if AT&T placed an antenna on the Parks Road tower, being built by T-Mobile. That’s known as “co-locating.”
The county’s ordinance requires phone companies to exhaust all possible co-locating opportunities that would meet their needs before trying to build a new tower.
The propagation map for AT&T showed that the area of no service would disappear with the Parks Road tower. However, a tower representative said that it might not create total and complete coverage.
“Folks who live, possibly, in a brick house would not have coverage throughout their house and that is what we are trying to achieve,” said Frank Romeo of P. Marshall and Associates, the wireless site development firm representing Skyway Towers and AT&T, at the continued public hearing. The phones might work near a window or in a home with wood siding, Romeo said.
Cowetan Rick Bevington thinks there has to be a better way.
He recently appeared before the commissioners asking them to consider a master plan for wireless towers.
“The real purpose I’m here for today is to try to convince the commission to have a proactive approach to planning telecommunications tower infrastructure,” Bevington said when he spoke to the commissioners.
“There is a method today of reacting to telecommunications tower infrastructure which is very reactive,” he said. “It’s primarily pushed by the development sector, whether they are a telecommunications company or an individual private developer,” he said.
“But it is a train rolling down the hill. The whole industry is big and it’s growing and will be five times as big in as many years.”
“There will be towers everywhere,” he said. “Which I’m not against. I’m just for planning where they go.”
“We plan for other things,” Bevington said. “Why not for these services?”
With a master plan, towers would be arranged as efficiently as possible, to minimize the overlaps that occur when different companies build towers near each other. The idea would be optimizing coverage while minimizing the towers, and putting the towers in the most appropriate places.
It would also give Cowetans an ability “to see it coming.”
“With mapping, the residents are better served,” Bevington said.
The way things are now, public opinions are a “necessary evil,” Bevington said.
The public isn’t notified of the possible tower until very late in the process — typically not until the public hearing is scheduled. But when work is being done on a master plan, there would be an opportunity for “real public input” before any specific tower applications are made.
Bevington got involved in the cell tower issue because of the application for the T-Mobile tower on Parks Road, very near his home.
After the county approved the tower permit, Bevington sued the county and T-Mobile. T-Mobile responded by suing the county, too.
Bevington couldn’t win in court. After he went over his budget by $2,000, he dismissed the case.
But in the end, he did win. T-Mobile decided not to build the tower.
Bevington thinks that part of the reason is that, while the whole thing was on hold because of his lawsuit, AT&T’s plan to buy T-Mobile fell apart.
“Time is an element in business,” said Bevington. He thinks T-Mobile “decided they didn’t need it anymore.”
The SUP for the Parks Road tower is no longer valid because it has expired.
The county’s ordinance sets a 120-day limit on permits. From the time a SUP is approved by the commissioners, the applicants have 120 days to get the tower up and operating. T-Mobile was granted a stay during the litigation; the company was also granted an extension, but that time limit has since run out.
The 120-day limit is designed to prevent the “warehousing” or stockpiling of permits, according to the county’s tower ordinance.
That short of a time frame means, of course, that the companies, and the towers, have to be just about ready to go by the time the public hearing is held on the tower application.
In fact, “they have to submit such a detailed package” when initially making application, “it’s pretty much engineered drawings,” said Teresa Crow, development review planner with the Coweta Planning Department. Because of the Telecommunications Act, counties and other local governments have very little discretion when it comes to denying towers.
“The Telecommunications Act says all they have to do is prove a need,” said Crow. “We are setting ourselves up for a lawsuit if we deny it.”
Bevington isn’t the first person to suggest better planning of tower sites in Coweta.
Then-Commissioner Leigh Schlumper expressed a similar view at the 2007 commission meeting during which the commissioners voted to deny the Minix Road and Orren’s Pond Road towers.
“What I don’t understand is why you guys don’t all come together and have a plan,” Schlumper said at that meeting.
“I’m sure we could do a plan, but conditions change,” Planning Director Robert Tolleson said at the time. “If everything was equal, I think it’s a good idea.”
John White, who lives on Lower Fayetteville Road, also urged coordination when speaking at the public hearing on the Lora Smith Road tower.
“I have really pondered why the cell towers can’t be coordinated,” White said. “They are coming up everywhere,” he said of the towers. “There seems to be no real coordination of these towers that could fit and could satisfy the telecommunications industry and the FCC,” he said. “I hope you will give some consideration to this coordination of towers.”