A cell tower company jumped the gun by building onto its tower without the necessary permits from Haywood County.
Verizon Wireless added 20 feet to the height of its tower off Mauney Cove without applying for a permit. When it eventually submitted one last month, it failed to mention the work had already been done.
County commissioners learned of the blunder at their meeting on Monday (Dec. 15).
“It’s almost like they built it on speculation,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
The construction not only needed a permit, but also an exemption from the county’s cell tower ordinance. The extra 20 feet built onto the tower means the tower’s fall zone is too close to the neighboring property line.
The ordinance requires a fall zone that’s half the height of the tower, which would be 60 feet, and a set back of another 25 feet, from the closest property line. The new height of the tower makes it 6 feet too close to the property line to meet the ordinance — 79 feet instead of 85 feet, Boyd said.
Commissioners asked if that posed a risk to neighbors.
Boyd said cell towers are theoretically built with a weak link at a mid-point in the tower, so should it fall, it buckles on top of itself rather than toppling like a tree.
“I can’t stand here and tell you that I know that 100 percent for sure that’s what would happen but that’s how it is supposed to be designed,” Boyd said
The tower sits below the tree canopy. That wasn’t the case when it was built five years ago, but the trees have since grown taller and obscured the signal.
“We know there is a lack of service in the area,” Boyd said.
Commission Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick also said he won’t argue with the need for cell service.
“But we certainly don’t need to overlook the fact they built the structure without first going through proper channels,” Kirkpatrick said.
What we know now
The county found out about the illegal construction from neighbors around the tower. When the cell company finally put in its application to increase the tower’s height, the county scheduled the requisite public hearing per the cell tower ordinance.
But when neighbors learned of the pending hearing, they called County Planner Kris Boyd and asked why he would have a hearing for work that had already been done.
The public hearing was supposed to be held at the county commissioners meeting this week, but Boyd recommended calling off the hearing until the county figured out its next move.
“I think the board should determine whether there should be some penalty,” Boyd said.
Verizon Wireless, or any cell company for that matter, doesn’t apply for its own permits. Instead, an outside legal firm handles the permitting on the cell company’s behalf.
Boyd said it’s possible the legal team and construction crews got their signals mixed.
“In talking to them last week, it was very obvious they were just as misinformed as we were,” Boyd said of the company, Crown Castle. “The last question they asked was ‘What do you want us to do to take care of this situation?’”
Commissioner Bill Upton said the commissioners should go ahead with the public hearing on the merits of the application, unswayed by the fact the work has been done.
“I think the only thing we can do is proceed like no work has been done,” Upton said.
If the county commissioners decide not to grant the variance, the company will have to take down what they’ve built.
County commissioners decided the original application is flawed, however, since it makes no mention of the work already being done. So the commissioners decided the company should start over by submitting a new and accurate application, and a new public hearing date would be set.
In the meantime, commissioners heard from neighbors who turned out for the public hearing even though it was technically called off. Neighbors said they were displeased by the situation.
“I feel it is very deceptive. They don’t tell anybody, they just do it,” said Adele Wilkins.
Their top complaint, however, was the construction trucks barreling up and down their gravel road. The road held up poorly to the wear and tear of the big trucks, said Richard Moore.
I don’t have a great objection to the tower being where it is, but I would like to see them do some paving or something,” said Moore, who said the road is in shambles.
Wilkins said the trucks contributed to erosion of the road itself and collapsed some of the shoulders. The trucks also threw dust everywhere and ran over some of her landscaping when turning around in her yard.