Asheville City Council

The magic number is 100 feet.

That’s the new cap Asheville City Council set for the height of telecommunications towers — half of what the old ordinance allowed. Council members voted unanimously to revise the city’s tower ordinance on Jan. 12, despite pleas from industry representatives that they compromise on several issues — particularly the height.

But consultant Paul Rosa, hired by the city to research and draft a new ordinance, posed this question to Council members: “What do you want your community to look like?”

The proposed ordinance, he explained, pushes different tower companies to co-locate antennas on one shared structure and make them less visible — either by using streamlined designs, or by camouflaging them on existing structures (such as wooden light poles or church steeples). The ordinance also includes some concessions to the industry, allowing the antennas themselves (as opposed to the towers) to be taller, and permitting camouflaged antennas in residential areas, where towers had previously been prohibited.

“The one [thing] we did not concede was the height,” noted Rosa, citing what he called a “transformation” in the industry: Originally, it was thought that each company would construct and operate its own separate towers; now, however, tower companies are building the structures and leasing them to telecommunications companies. The tower companies are more likely to co-locate antennas, to maximize their lease revenues, Rosa explained.

He also mentioned that it was once believed that technological advances in the industry would lead to the dismantling of existing tall towers, but that hasn’t happened. “Existing towers will not come down, once they’re built,” he declared.

Rosa urged Council to adopt the proposed ordinance, pointing out that several companies are currently searching for tower sites in Asheville. “Get this on the books, and work from there,” he recommended.

But Bell South Mobility attorney Larry McDevitt pressed for compromise. “There are things in [this ordinance] that aren’t fair,” he charged. Telecommunications companies “need height,” because the low-frequency radio waves they use have a limited range. He asked Council to consider a height limit of 115 feet for single-antenna towers. If Council members want to encourage co-location, they should allow — under certain conditions, and entirely at their discretion — towers up to 150 feet tall, McDevitt continued.

Attempting to unravel the technical details for Council members, he claimed that the 100-foot cap would “destroy the opportunity for co-location” — and result in more towers in Asheville, since it is not always possible for companies to share towers, particularly with such a low height limit.

McDevitt presented Council with several other suggestions: giving companies 30 days’ notice that their permits are up for renewal; setting clearer standards for reviewing of leases and permits every five years; and allowing shorter setbacks from property lines for towers.

Another Bell South Mobility attorney, Gary Pennington, said the company would like to see more flexibility in the ordinance.

But Council members seemed reluctant to tinker with Rosa’s proposal. When McDevitt asked that the five-year review requirement be dropped, for now (until city staff can set less ambiguous criteria for companies to meet), Vice Mayor Ed Hay responded, “We don’t want to leave a hole in the ordinance.”

And Council member Chuck Cloninger pointed out that those standards could be added at a later time — well before any mandatory review would begin.

Then Council member O.T. Tomes asked whether any engineers had been consulted, especially with regard to the height issue. Rosa was arguing that the 100-foot height might result in two or three extra towers (in place of one 200-foot structure); industry reps were predicting as many as 12.

No, responded Senior City Planner Gerald Green, because Rosa was deemed to have the necessary credentials to draft the ordinance.

U.S. Cellular attorney Jack Tate said his company had hired an engineer — a radio engineer, to be exact, who had calculated that 114 feet is the absolute minimum height needed in Asheville’s terrain.

Cobb asked how many U.S. Cellular towers there are in Asheville; 12, replied Tate. “You could end up with another 144 towers,” claimed Tate.

But Asheville resident Mike Lewis emphasized what he called “the irony” of a photo that ran in the Jan. 12 Asheville Citizen-Times: It shows the intricately patterned cornices atop the facades of Biltmore Avenue buildings, such as the Fine Arts Theater, with an antenna-dotted tower silhouetted against the ridgeline above. “I have a cell phone myself,” he confessed, calling the proliferation of such structures a “blight” on the city. “Is the current service we have that bad?” he asked, responding to industry arguments that more, taller towers are needed to improve cell-phone service in Asheville. Lewis said the proposed ordinance “seems to meet Asheville’s needs.”

Asheville resident Leonard Smith remarked, “No one who has a [business] license and forgets to renew [it] should be in business.” He urged Council to adopt the ordinance, and not give in to McDevitt’s request that companies be given 30 days’ notice when their permits are due to expire.

But Asheville resident Uriah Morrison — a former military communications specialist — suggested compromising on a 115-foot tower height. “Fifteen feet isn’t so much,” he argued.

Council member Barbara Field admitted that she was “uncomfortable” with the 100-vs.-115-foot issue, saying she would like an engineer to tell Council what difference it really makes.

Tomes concurred.

But Rosa said that Bell South Mobility had suggested letting their engineers report on the issue — only to withhold the data when he asked for it. He added that he has seen 10-foot-high towers in Roanoke, which seemed to work quite well. Rosa also handed Council members an article about a $1.2 million, 130-foot tower, built on the Queens College campus in Charlotte, which looks like a bell tower. And he mentioned another one, just 80 feet tall, built in an exclusive neighborhood in the Northeast. “Why not here?” Rosa posed.

Cloninger said he’d like to see Council adopt the ordinance “as is” that evening, urging, “Let’s pass it tonight.”

Sitnick argued that, if telecommunications companies want some flexibility, it has to go both ways: Perhaps they could reduce the height of some existing 200-foot towers, or do a better job of camouflaging them?

Cloninger made a motion to adopt the ordinance, seconded by Tomes. It passed, unanimously.

But Field pressed city staff to review the height issue.

Green and City Manager Jim Westbrook replied that Planning staff have other projects pending, and would need guidance from Council on which ones to back-burner, if the height issue were made top priority.

“The height issue was studied … and the recommendation was for 100 feet,” said Cloninger. He suggested that Council wait until its end-of-January retreat to consider whether to direct staff to consider it again.

“Excellent idea,” said Sitnick. “Let’s take this up at our retreat — even if it means extending [our Sunday session] an hour or two.”

“On Super Bowl Sunday!” Cobb said, with a laugh.

“I’ve heard that before,” countered Sitnick, who — during her first term on Council — argued, in vain, to extend the retreat into football time. “Someone could tape the game …”

He showed them the money

Leave it to Robert Griffin: He spearheaded a one-month fund-raising effort that convinced Council members to shore up Zealandia Bridge, preserving the historic structure for possible inclusion in a future ridgeline park.

“We have raised money at about the clip of $1,000 a day,” Griffin told Council members on Jan. 12. Working with Quality Forward, the Historic Preservation Society and private individuals, he had raised $37,500.

With $10,000 from the city and $2,500 more in private donations, work could begin on a short-term preservation effort, added Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Molloy.

But Windswept Drive property owner Dan Foy said that he and some of his neighbors are concerned. In the past, he noted, vandals have shot off guns, spray-painted the rocks, and loitered around the crumbling old bridge. “If [it’s] restored, it’s going to give them a nice place to trash.” And, as far as a ridgeline park is concerned, trees around the bridge might have to be clearcut to open up the views.

Malloy reported that the initial stabilization project would include fencing off the bridge “from curious citizens, in order to prevent loitering,” in keeping with the recommendation of a group of property owners, Historic Resources Commission members, interested citizens and city staff who met on Dec. 22 to discuss options for the bridge. The group also recommended creating a committee that would work with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department on funding and developing a park on city property adjacent to the bridge, Malloy explained.

Prelimary estimates peg the cost of the entire project at about $800,000.

Council member Field remarked that, on the city’s part, “the intent is there, but not the money.” Raising the needed funds will be up to private citizens.

On a motion by Tomes, Council members unanimously agreed to: pitch in $10,000 toward the project; negotiate with property owners for the easements and rights-of-way needed for the park; hire Precision Contracting to stabilize the bridge; and enact a memorandum of understanding with the bridge committee, which will be responsible for raising funds for the overall park project by Jan. 1, 2002.

Parks bond referendum set for May

“Who can argue that we don’t need parks?” Asheville resident H.K. Edgerton asked Asheville City Council members on Jan. 12, as they were poised to adopt a resolution setting a May 11 date for a public vote on issuing $18 million worth of parks, recreation and greenways bonds. Edgerton asked about the top priorities for the bond funds, which could raise city property-tax rates by 3 cents per $100 worth of property value.

“Why don’t we ask Irby Brinson?” responded Mayor Sitnick.

City Parks and Recreation Director Brinson explained that $6 million of the money would pay for building new facilities, such as a ballpark at Richmond Hill, soccer fields at the former Lake Craig site, a public swimming pool at Asheville High, and a ridgeline park at the old White Fawn reservoir. Another $6 million would be used to renovate existing facilities, such as community centers around the city. The remainder would be allocated for greenway development and property acquisition, Brinson concluded.

But Edgerton questioned spending money on things like greenways, when Asheville has such a pressing need for affordable housing — and the city is surrounded by underutilized state and federal park lands.

“The Smoky Mountain National Park is the most used park in the U.S.,” Sitnick replied. And she emphasized that renovating the city’s community centers and improving the programs offered there directly serves city youth and residents. “It’s not just about parks and greenways,” countered Sitnick, stressing that such amenities enhance everyone’s quality of life. The city is also considering ways to fund affordable-housing programs, she noted.

In addition, Edgerton questioned the wisdom of borrowing money for parks, when — it has been rumored — the city may be facing a $5 million budget shortfall in the coming year.

“Your sources are incorrect,” answered City Manager Jim Westbrook. “The budget is balanced, according to state law.” If the city had budget shortfalls that large, Westbrook noted, it wouldn’t qualify for the AA bond rating it now has. According to city staff reports, the city’s net indebtedness on existing bonds is a mere 1.675 percent of the assessed valuation of all property in the city.

Edgerton said he appreciated those responses, but asked to speak with the mayor at a later time.

Council member Earl Cobb asked about the time frame for issuing the bonds.

Brinson said the city would borrow the money over a five-year period — $10 million in the first three years, and $8 million in the next two.

On a motion by Cloninger, seconded by Sellers, Council unanimously approved the bond order, which states the purpose and amount of the bonds that would be issued, if approved by the voters. And on a motion by Field, seconded by Tomes, Council unanimously approved holding the bond referendum on May 11.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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