By STEVEN NALLEY
The Starkville Board of Adjustments and Appeals rejected C Spire Wireless’s request for variances from city laws needed to erect a 100-foot cellular tower, opening a dialogue about possible changes to those laws at its meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Board members John Hill, Dennis Nordin and Jeff Markham were absent, but with chair Milo Burnham voting, the board had the quorum needed to vote. Marco Nicovich made a motion to approve the variances, but it died for lack of a motion. Lee Carson then made a motion to reject the variances, which Bill Webb seconded. Carson’s motion passed 3-1, with Nicovich voting against it.
City law typically requires cellular towers to be set back from all other property at a distance no less than the tower’s height, but C Spire requested a 60-foot setback for a 100-foot tower. Cellular towers also typically have to be at least 2,640 feet from the nearest residential district, the report says, but C Spire asked to build the tower 60 feet away from the district.
Burnham said it was the latter variance that bothered him most. No one commented during the public hearing, and no property owners within a 300-foot radius of the tower site made inquiries with the city leading up to the hearing, but Burnham said much of the nearby property is rental property.
“Renters don’t care because they’re not going to be there,” Burnham said. “I don’t know who owns the property, but I have a feeling some of them are absentee landowners. I can’t put a lot of stock in the fact that nobody replied. I know as unobtrusive as (C Spire says) that tower will be, I don’t want it in my backyard.”
C Spire representative David McGehee said C Spire has addressed concerns about the tower falling by engineering the pole such that it would fall in a 50-foot radius if it collapsed, and its collapse was unlikely in the first place.
“Monopoles are the most modern and strongest of the poles,” McGehee said. “In Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the middle of the town where you could see the path the tornado made ... there was still a 100-foot tower.”
Webb said he was still concerned about setting precedent for other cellular companies and their towers.
“The next one might not be a monopole,” Webb said. “If we accept this 60 feet in lieu of 100 feet, does that set us up?”
Despite saying 60 feet is too little distance to put between a tower and a residential area, Burnham said 2,640 feet might also be too far. He said the 2,640-foot restriction might be so difficult to meet that it prevents any more cellular companies from building towers in Starkville.
“Most of the writing from the city planning (side) seems to write (cellular towers) away,” Burnham said. “I see serious problems with meeting these criteria.”
John Wade, an attorney representing C Spire, said he agrees that the law poses a problem, but the solution lies primarily with Starkville. An argument could be made that the 2,640-foot restriction has enough impact to violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996, he said.
“But as you can imagine, C Spire is not in the business typically of suing municipalities,” Wade said. “ It’s not unusual, in my experience, to see a community that has an ordinance that excludes cell towers from residential areas or that has a setback (for) the height of the tower. It is pretty unusual to have a provision that states that you have to be a half mile away from a residentially zoned area. With regard to C Spire’s options, we can’t force the city to rewrite the ordinance, even though It is pretty onerous. In essence, Starkville has made a decision to try to zone cellular towers out of the city.”
Burnham said C Spire had 10 days to take an appeal before the Starkville Board of Aldermen. He said C Spire representatives should ask the aldermen to change the 2,640-foot restriction when they make their appeal.
“I don’t think any of us are opposed to the tower,” Burnham said. “I’ve got C Spire coverage myself.”