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Proposed Cashiers cell tower draws debate

cashiersA proposal to put in a new cell tower a half-mile from the Cashiers crossroads has sparked heated debate between long-time neighbors Mark Zachary and Rick Barrs, but the outcome of an upcoming hearing on the issue will affect more than just the two men.

Cashiers currently has only one cell phone tower, which sits down in the village and has a lease set to expire in September. If a new tower doesn’t go up before then, Cashiers will be without cell service. 

Not that the issue should gain the status of an emergency, Barrs said. The owner of the existing site has been telling Verizon for six years they’ll have to find somewhere else to put their tower when his lease is up, Barrs said, and as the owner of the property right next to the proposed site, he’s adamant that something has to change before the plans are approved. The proposed site is within 140 feet of the property line — pretty close considering the Zachary family’s property measures 22 acres, 30 if you count Mark Zachary’s personal property into the mix. 

That’s a problem for Barrs, because while his home is more than a mile from the site, he believes the tower would impede his plans for the 30 acres of contiguous property he’s amassed there. Long-term, he wants to build a residential community on the land and believes that having a 120-foot cell tower a stone’s throw from the property line will degrade the value of the property. 

“It would be an industrial site, an industrial intrusion in an otherwise woodland setting for cottages,” Barrs said. 

That’s the exact opposite of his intention, Zachary said. 

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“The site was chosen to benefit the maximum number of people,” he said. “I had no idea they were going to put a development right on their property line.”

Meanwhile, the tower plans call for substantial consideration of aesthetics and noise pollution, said Henry Campen, a Raleigh attorney representing the cell tower company Crown Castle. The tower will feature an insulated compartment to muffle any noise, and the company will plant two layers of vegetation to further hide the base and absorb sound. The fence around the base will be made of wooden slats, and the tower bottom itself will be painted brown. The trees around it reach to about 100 feet — Barrs said it’s more like 85 feet — so at 120 feet the tower’s pale top will be nearly invisible, Zachary said. 

“Crown is going the extra mile,” Campen said. 

 

Location, location, location 

But why does it have to be so close to the property line, Barrs asked? With all the land available, why put the tower so far to the edge? 

A lot of it has to do with topography, said Zachary. 

Cashiers isn’t exactly a flat area, and right now the high ridge where Zachary would like to build near is blocking service from the existing tower, which sits in the valley down in Cashiers. 

“We picked the current spot because it had the maximum coverage for the whole community,” Zachary said, as well as the combined maximum distance from all houses. 

Larry Perry, the consultant Jackson County hired to help it navigate the evaluation process, agrees with Zachary on that. Even though the proposed tower would be 70 feet shorter than the existing one in town, Perry said, its elevation would mean better coverage. 

That possibility was an important motivator in going forward with the lease, Zachary said. Right now, there’s no cell reception at the doctor’s office, or at the Cashiers United Methodist Church, or at High Hampton Inn & Country Club, for starters. When setting up an interview for this story, Zachary gave out his landline number, because it’s more reliable than the cell. 

What Zachary didn’t know when he began making these plans, he said, was that Barrs had dreams of building a cottage community right along the property line. 

“I didn’t know anything about this until they ripped my face off about the cell tower,” Zachary said, adding that if it’s a discussion about what is and isn’t OK to do on the edge of a property line, he’s not quite on board with the Barrs wanting to build a whole cottage community right next to his. 

For Barrs’ part, he maintains that the proposed site is “really just not acceptable to us in the least,” and that he’s given Zachary alternate sites to consider. Improved cell service will be a good thing, he said — just not coming from that spot. But no place will work as well as the proposed one, Zachary maintains, arguing that Barrs’ alternate sites are too close to his own home, with one of them meeting opposition from the already existing Gana Sita development. 

 

Debating the timeline 

Barrs also takes issue with the timeline of the application process, saying that the decision is being “fast-tracked.”

Perry, an experienced lawyer and engineer in the field who’s put up towers in 22 countries, said that’s not so. He said the faster-than-normal process is due to a federal law that kicked in this February, requiring local governments to act on cell tower applications within 30 days. 

But why is the application just being put in now, Barrs asked? After all, the leaseholder for the existing tower has been telling Verizon for years that he’s not renewing. Zachary’s held a lease with Crown Castle for about two years. So why bring it forward now, when the Cashiers tower is so close to expiring? 

The reason, Zachary said, is that there’s a lot involved with putting in a tower application before even starting on the application itself. The company had to do several different studies looking at the effects of the proposed action, complete a survey of the area and notify all the homeowners within a certain radius. 

“It takes about a year and a half, two years to get everything in place to even present a proposal to the county planning board,” Zachary said. 

Both Barrs and Zachary made their feelings known during public comment at the Jackson County Planning Board meeting last week, but the board couldn’t give the neighborly dispute too much consideration in forming its decision. 

“A lot of the arguments are taken away from the planning committee, taken away from the county commissioners. That’s done on purpose,” Perry said, because the “not in my backyard” attitude will be present in pretty much all of these situations. “If an application meets (the requirements) and you turn them down and they sue, you lose. So whatever your rules are, that’s what you got to live by.”

The rules in this case are a good bit different than what they’ll probably be next time a cell tower application comes through. In December, the planning board OK’d a new set of rules governing cell tower applications, which commissioners are likely to vote on this summer. Those rules will have a somewhat different approval process and provide a little more leeway for case-by-case decision-making. 

“I think you’re going to like the other ordinance better,” County Attorney Jay Coward told the board.  

 

Recommended, but with caveats 

According to the letter of the law, the planning board had to recommend approving the application, but the county commissioners will make the final decision June 25 after a quasi-judicial hearing — complete with the swearing in of witnesses and presentation of evidence — and a public hearing imbedded between the quasi-judicial hearing and the decision.  

But planning board members weren’t without their concerns. 

First, they questioned Crown Castle’s request for an exemption from the county’s rule that each cell tower must allow at least six providers to use it. It’s a rule aimed at reducing tower clutter by having different carriers pile onto a single tower. Even though the proposed tower would be physically capable of carrying the required number of antennae, it’s not planned to poke far enough above the canopy to draw interest from other companies. 

“More or less it would be just shooting into the trees,” said Roxanne Garman, real estate specialist for Crown Castle.  

That caused planning board members to ponder whether the tower should be taller than 120 feet. That might be the variance Crown Castle should ask for, rather than requesting an exemption from the six-antenna rule, planning board member Baker said. 

Zachary, meanwhile, maintains that he’s trying to get something installed that will provide a service without being an eyesore. 

“The Zachary family was the one that wanted it as low to the top of the trees as possible to make it the least visible,” he said. “If someone wants to put a really big, tall, ugly tower somewhere else, it’s none of my business.”

 

 

Be heard

The Jackson County Commissioners will make a final decision on the future of Crown Castle’s cell tower application following a combined quasi-judicial hearing and public hearing starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at the Albert Carlton Library in Cashiers. 

The quasi-judicial component will very much resemble a courtroom proceeding, with witnesses being sworn in, evidence presented and the board handing down a decision at the end. And like in a trial, commissioners aren’t allowed to research the case or gather information before the hearing begins. 

That’s why the public hearing component will be imbedded between the presentation of evidence and the commissioners’ decision. Anyone with an opinion on the issue can come speak for up to three minutes. 

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