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AT&T wants to lift ban on new cell-phone towers in residential areas of Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

AT&T Mobility Corp. and American Towers LLC are seeking to amend a Winston-Salem ordinance to lift a ban on new cell-phone transmission towers throughout residential areas of the city.

Telecom giant AT&T and American Towers LLC, a company that builds cell-phone towers and leases space to service providers, approached planning staff in February to discuss their concerns about existing regulations. They presented their plan to members of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance in August.

“The issue behind this ordinance is that over the past decade as people have been substituting land lines for exclusive use of mobile phones, and with the advent of smart phones and increased streaming of internet and texting, that has reduced the coverage area of the existing cell-phone network,” said Kirk Ericson, the lead planner for the text amendment in the planning department. “The radius of coverage of each tower is lower than it used to be. Our current ordinance doesn’t allow towers in single-family areas except for the future-growth and rural areas of the county. They need to get these towers where their customers live and are using the phone service.”

The proposed amendment goes before the City/County Planning Board on Thursday. The nine-member planning board will recommend for or against adoption of the amendment, but Winston-Salem City Council will make the final decision.

AT&T invested more than $250 million in its wireless and wire-line networks in North Carolina in the first six months of 2013, company spokesman Clifton Metcalf said. The telecom company’s interest in improving infrastructure in Forsyth County tracks with a nationwide trend that has seen wireless use double from 2010-11 to 1.1 trillion megabytes of data in 2011-12 while 30 percent of Americans have dropped land-line service. Metcalf added that more than 75 percent of 911 calls in Forsyth County are currently made using wireless devices.

Metcalf said the number of new towers or antennas needed by AT&T to adequately meet its customers’ needs is an “evolving” number, and the information is considered proprietary to the company. He said the preference of AT&T is to have two or more companies place their antennas on the same tower to minimize intrusion into residential communities, adding that American Towers LLC would lease space to AT&T and other service providers. AT&T’s main competitors in the wireless arena are Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile. Any new towers will be available for use by any of the four major carriers.

“The existing ordinance requires that any new tower construction be built for co-location,” said Liz Hill, director of government affairs for American Towers LLC. “That’s in the existing law, and we didn’t change it. That’s a common business practice. We own the tower; we lease to other carriers. That’s the goal — to lease to as many providers as possible.”

Hill added that fire departments and emergency medical services can also lease tower space.

Metcalf added that wherever possible, AT&T tries to place antennas on water towers or bell towers, or in faux pine trees so that they blend into the landscape.

The proposed text amendment incentivizes shorter, concealed towers of 150 feet or less by subjecting them to a more streamlined approval process through a zoning review in residential neighborhoods. In contrast, the siting of taller towers would require a specialuse permit from the board of adjustment.

The more stringent specialuse permit process includes a public hearing for citizen comment and requires the board to make four findings of fact, including that the tower will not endanger public health or safety or substantially injure the value of adjacent property, to meet approval. The board of adjustment would also have the authority to impose additional conditions to safeguard public health and neighboring property values.

Ericson said concerns brought to staff by members of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance have been twofold so far: They would like more input on how new towers are approved and more community-wide discussion on the proposed ordinance amendment itself.

The proposed amendment also adds language to require that concealed towers on vacant lots be set back to a distance equivalent to their height or a minimum of 100 feet.

“As staff we’ve already worked with the petitioner to try and reach a compromise point that we’re satisfied with so that the ordinance provides safeguards for the neighborhoods,” Ericson said. “There’s an opportunity to change the ordinance further if that’s what the appointed and elected officials want to do.”

Eric Bushnell, president of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance, said the organization’s membership will ask the Planning Board to remand the matter back to staff to get more input from the public.

“The cell-phone industry proposal raises two big questions which Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance members strongly believe should be answered by communitywide conversation,” Bushnell said in an e-mailed statement. “Do Winston- Salem residents want cell towers in their residential neighborhoods, at all? If residents want cell towers in their neighborhoods, how would they decide where to put the towers?”

WANNA go?

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Planning Board meets on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the public meeting room on the 5th floor of the Bryce Stuart Municipal Building, located at 100 E. 1st St. in Winston-Salem.

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