Wendell eases restrictions on cell towers in town

jwhitfield@newsobserver.comJuly 18, 2013 

— After being called a “bad actor” by the telecommunications industry in 2011, Wendell officials hope a less restrictive policy on the placement of cell towers will improve reception for users of wireless devices.

The town’s new policy, which has received tentative approval from the town commissioners, would allow cell towers in a lot more places. It would also allow taller towers in some instances.

Town Manager Teresa Piner addressed members of the planning board Monday night to explain the need for more cell towers and how the rules would change under the proposed policy.

According to Piner, the demand for cellular service has skyrocketed in recent years, not because the town’s population has increased, but because of the proliferation of wireless devices like smartphones and tablets.

Having spotty reception for businesses in the downtown area is also a problem.

“There are a lot of people who shop in stores and want to take a picture of something and send it to someone else to see before they buy it,” Piner said.

The new policy would allow cell towers in nearly every zoning district in the town, including residential neighborhoods, although there are limits on the height of those towers and rules that call for the towers to be hidden or obscured.

The policy also allows for administrative approval for new cell towers, meaning a request would not have to go before the town’s planning board or town commissioners and could, instead, be approved by town staff.

Piner said the policy needs updating because the town’s first efforts to lure cell tower operators to town have not worked.

She shared a 2011 letter from the N.C. League of Municipalities in which then-Associate Director Charles Archer reported on the results of a fact-finding effort by the Federal Communications Commission, which was looking into, among other things, “wireless facilities siting requirements,” or rules regarding the location of cell towers.

Under pressure

In his letter, Archer said the telecommunications industry cited Wendell as a bad actor.

“We believe ‘bad actor’ means your jurisdiction has either codified a blanket ban across certain zoning districts or retain consultants identified by the wireless infrastructure industry as ‘obstructionist or problematic,’ ” Archer wrote.

The change in policy comes in the wake of the town’s decision to terminate its contract with The Center For Municipal Solutions, a consultant that helped the town formulate the original cell tower policy.

Piner did not say if the town terminated its contract because the consultant was among those identified by the industry in a negative light.

Piner said she has held talks with representatives of a number of cellphone companies about the reception problems in Wendell and thinks she may have finally reached the people in those companies who can help the town.

“AT&T came out recently and spent some time down at Kannon’s measuring their reception and trying to make some adjustments to their tower that would improve the reception there,” Piner said.

Joe Ann Wright, whose family owns Kannons, said customers in the store have been signing a petition for several months encouraging the town to take steps to improve the cell coverage in Wendell. Wright presented that petition to Piner recently and said it contained between 200 and 300 signatures.

“I’m really pleased that Teresa seems to be the person who’s taken this on and wants to get something done,” Wright said.

Whitfield: 919-829-4823

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