Dozens of residents oppose a proposed cell phone pole on Jackson Highway, but if the Covington City Council is going to vote down the tower it has to provide evidence that the tower will negatively affect the surrounding residents’ property values.
The council voted 4-2 Monday to table the request for a 199-foot cell pole, but only after council members were told they couldn’t vote it down without a justified reason, because the courts would overturn their decision and the city could be liable for legal costs.
Why is it needed?
TowerCom is requesting to build the pole on Monticello Street, where a self-storage facility exists now, on behalf of AT&T and T-Mobile, which have said they have a gap in their coverage in the 1-mile radius the pole would help serve.
The cell pole request met all 14 of the city’s criteria to get a special use permit and the Covington Planning Commission voted 5-2 to approve the request; however, five residents spoke out against the tower and the City Council wants to vote it down if it can.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston questioned why the pole had to be so tall; for comparison, utility poles in the city are generally 60 feet or shorter, Deputy City Manager Billy Bouchillon said.
Paul “Chip” Bulloch, vice president of TowerCom, said the pole is designed to be tall so that multiple cell phone carriers can co-locate on the pole — each carrier’s equipment needs to be separated by 10-15 feet. The tower could potentially hold up to five carriers.
Under Covington’s ordinances, co-locating is recommended, but Johnston’s concern is that the pole will be so much taller than the surrounding trees. Johnston said he’d prefer to see more, smaller poles – one or two per carrier — that blended into the surrounding pine trees, but Bulloch said that approach wouldn’t work on this property and he said there are no other useable properties in the area.
He said cell phone pole signals travel further the higher up the infrastructure is on the pole. There were no church steeples, water towers or other tall structures that were suitable and legally allowed to have a cell pole on them, said Melissa J. Perignat, a partner with the law firm Holt Ney Zatcoff & Wasserman, who was representing TowerCom.
Perignat made several arguments in support of the application, including:
- the fact cell phone use is constantly increasing
- that the tower would improve the selected site was the only one in the area that works
- that there are no proven health risks associated with cell phone towers and that health concerns can’t be used to deny an application, under FCC guidelines
- that better cell phone coverage can increase property values and that the pole won’t be visible from the properties behind the self-storage facility because of trees blocking it
- that the pole’s design is such that in the event it falls, it will collapse on itself because of its design, not on surrounding buildings or properties
However, area residents were not satiated, and many took issue with the renderings provided to residents by TowerCom, which showed the pole barely rising above utility poles. While the pole will be set back from the road, area residents said the perspectives used for the renderings were purposely misleading.
Residents’ main concern is that their property values will be negatively affected. Polly Milligan, who spoke against the pole along with her husband and son, said she, her friends and realtors she spoke with disagreed with Perignat’s claim that property values would not be harmed. Milligan has lived on the street for 69 years.
Two residents raised concerns that the cell pole is not actually needed. Allan Lustenberger said he’s a retired avionic engineer, and he said the companies could boost the power to surrounding towers to cover more area instead of adding a new tower.
A petition opposing the pole had 50 signatures; however, Perignat said less than half of the petitioners own property in the city limits and there is only one home directly adjacent to the property. That home, the Milligan’s, is 470 feet away from the tower, Perignat said.
Council’s concern and next steps
Councilman Mike Whatley initially made a motion to deny the cell pole application, which was seconded by Councilman Keith Dalton. However, Whatley withdrew his motion after the city’s legal staff expressed concerns.
Assistant City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. said the law “greatly” limits local governments’ ability to deny cell towers. If the council was to vote down the application, it would have to give “substantial written evidence” of negative effects related to the pole, such as decreasing property values. Turner said aesthetics alone is not a sufficient reason.
Councilman Chris Smith asked if the Council shouldn’t just deny the application, since the worst outcome would be that the courts would overturn the council’s decision. However, other council members expressed concern about whether the city would have to pay attorney’s fees and be otherwise liable; Turner said he didn’t know.
Turner said he would recommend the city hire a consultant to study whether the cell pole would in fact negatively affect property values.
The city has to make a decision with 150 days of the application, which was submitted April 15, Senior Planner Scott Gaither said, so the city has about four months left.
The Council voted 4-2, with councilmen Dalton and Smith opposing, to table the issue and study it in more depth.