Ridgetop revisions in play for Jackson tower ordinance
Cell phone towers in Jackson County cannot currently be built on ridgetops. That looks likely to change as revisions to the county’s ordinance governing cell towers progress.
Thus far in the revision process, the Jackson County Planning Board has dug into issues such as allowable height and style of construction.
“Right now we’re looking at where you can put them on ridgetops,” said Jackson County Planner Gerald Green.
In potential revisions that the board will discuss during its Nov. 13 meeting, cell towers will be allowed on ridgetops — as defined by the county’s Hillside Development ordinance — provided that they are not more than 100 feet in height, or not more than 30 feet higher than the surrounding tree canopy, or 40 feet higher if two or more wireless telecommunication facilities are located on the tower.
“That’s how a majority of the board wants to go,” Green said.
One planning board member who favors allowing ridgetop towers is Chairman Clark Lipkin.
“My opinion is that there’s no better place to put a cell phone tower than on ridgetops,” the chairman said.
Lipkin referred to the ridgetop option as the “least visibly-intrusive place” to put a tower. He downplayed the sensitivity surrounding such a notion, questioning the position that ridgetops should be treated as off-limits or special in any sort of developmental sense.
“People have got it wrong. It’s a myth. It’s a myth that’s easy to fall into because it sounds like it makes sense,” Lipkin said, noting that the argument has suffered from carry-over concerns from the county’s steep slope development conversation. “I don’t know if the rest of the board feels that way — in fact I know that some on the board don’t feel that way.”
The chairman said he expects the board to “reach a reasonable compromise” during Thursday’s discussion. He also said he considered it the board’s duty to loosen up the current ordinance governing tower placement and construction in Jackson.
“There’s a large part of the county that gets no cell service, and it’s a big detriment to the people of this county,” Lipkin said. “I feel it’s my duty as a member of the planning board to write an ordinance that is going to be encouraging, to let more cell phone companies provide service in the county.”
Prior to their current consideration of ridgetop towers, the planning board has tackled design specifics and height allowances. After initially discussing requiring towers to be camouflaged in an effort to minimize aesthetic impact, the board decided to instead make such construction voluntary. And after initially discussing keeping the current ordinance’s height limit of 120 feet in place, the board decided to up that limit — towers get an extra 20 feet of height if a camouflage design is incorporated, and another 20 for co-locating devices, and another 20 if significant increase of service can be obtained.
The revisions put the new absolute ceiling at 180 feet.
Green said that in revising the ordinance, planning board members have attempted to address aesthetic and environmental concerns while still allowing for the development of towers that address a lack of cellular service in the area.
“The board has worked hard to satisfy the competing interest,” Green said.
In the few years since the current tower ordinance’s passage, there haven’t been any towers constructed in Jackson. Green estimates that most of the towers in the county, constructed pre-ordinance, probably average around 160 feet.
Since the planning board began working towards a revised tower ordinance earlier this summer, the county has fielded several applications from interested parties wishing to construct a tower.
The prospects of a tower in the Whiteside Cove area — a possibility that eventually fizzled — generated heated debate throughout the summer, with property owners protesting Verizon’s application. Currently, there are a couple of prospective tower developers looking in the area.
“We have some people that are, I’ll call it window shopping,” Green said.
Apparently AT&T is one of the window shoppers. The other is concealed behind a company that scouts for tower locations.
Green said that areas of the county plagued with patchy reception are the most targeted areas for telecommunications companies.
“The Cashiers area and the north end of the county seem to be the two areas that are seeing the most attention,” Green said.
Ridgetop towers on the table
The revisions currently being considered for the cell tower ordinance allow for tower location on Jackson County ridgetops. Under the current ordinance ridgetop towers are not allowed.
If the revisions are eventually approved, a 100-foot tower would be allowable on a ridgetop. Towers would be allowed to exceed the 100 foot height if it were necessary to reach 30 feet above the surrounding tree canopy. Or 40 feet, if multiple communication devices were located on the tower.
The Jackson County Planning Board will consider these revisions during its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Jackson County Administration building.