Commentary: Citizens get poor reception from city under cell tower zoning

Commentary: Citizens get poor reception from city under cell tower zoning
December 14
03:00 2017

By David D. Castro

There are few things more frustrating than trying to talk to someone on a mobile phone when the call keeps cutting out, or worse, dropping entirely. And the strain on our wireless infrastructure grows each year, as more people buy the latest smartphones to stay connected and get online.

The only way to ensure that we have good wireless coverage in our homes is to erect more cell towers. For this reason, at the request of the wireless industry, the [Winston-Salem] City Council voted a few years ago to modify its zoning ordinances so as to allow the construction of transmission towers in residential areas – a practice that was previously prohibited in our city.

On its face, this change appeared to be good. The easier we make it for companies to put up new cell towers, the sooner we get fast and cheap mobile broadband and better coverage. But in its attempt to accelerate the permitting process, the city appears to have given up too much control of the process.

Recently, Communications Tower Group (CTG), one of the largest privately held wireless infrastructure companies, applied for a special use permit to build a 150-foot cell tower at the Twin City Bible Church in Ardmore. The Ardmore neighborhood firmly opposes this development; however, local opposition is given almost no weight under the city’s new rules.

Unlike typical zoning cases where residents can petition their elected officials, the city reviews special use permit for wireless towers using a quasi-judicial procedure set by state law that sharply curtails these democratic processes and makes it exceedingly difficult for residents to have their voices heard.

For example, the council will only consider testimony presented by experts, rather than average citizens. At the hearing last month, CTG brought in its out-of-town real estate appraiser who testified that the proposed tower would have no impact on property values. Under questioning, the appraiser admitted that he testifies frequently for his clients on this topic and very rarely finds evidence of a harmful impact.

When an Ardmore resident spoke in opposition, noting her concern that constructing the tower across the street from her would adversely affect the value of her home, the council was instructed to disregard her testimony because she had mistakenly failed to be sworn in.

Silencing opposition appears to be a feature, rather than a bug, of the current permit application process.

Right now, when citizens attempt to stop a new tower from going up in their neighborhood, they quickly discover that the deck is stacked against them. The existing rules simply do not provide residents enough of a voice in deciding whether to permit the construction of wireless transmission towers in residential areas.

Cell towers provide considerable benefits and the city should not halt their construction, but it should ensure that the majority of these towers are placed in areas zoned for commercial activity. Only when there are extenuating circumstances should the city permit these towers in residential areas. The burden of proof should be on the applicants to show that no viable alternatives are available before approving construction of a transmission tower in a residential area.

Unless the city changes its zoning laws, it is too easy for those building these cell towers to tune out local concerns. We need our local leaders to ensure that the wireless companies are serving our citizens, and not the other way around.

Daniel D. Castro is the president of the Ardmore Neighborhood Association.

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