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Pasquotank to change cell tower rules

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pasquotank County is looking to put a new permit requirement on cell towers, in a move county officials say will give nearby property owners more notice before they're built.

The county is also cutting ties with a firm that reviews cell tower applications. County staff have described those reviews as “overkill” and too costly.

In unanimous votes last week, county commissioners directed county staff to end Pasquotank’s contract with CityScape Consultants, and to draft an ordinance amendment requiring cell towers obtain special use permits.

County staff started looking at cell towers again after an attorney from Verizon Wireless protested the county's $4,500 cell tower review fee as “unusually high,” according to a county memo.

Based on state law — which has changed since the county first contracted with CityScape in 2006 — the county agreed, Planning Director Shelley Cox explained to commissioners.

Rather than seek to renegotiate CityScape's fee, Cox recommended ending the county's contract with the company altogether. Companies looking to install cell towers have their own engineers verify they're structurally sound, Cox said, adding that cell towers rarely collapse.

She also said the county hasn't seen much value in CityScape's reviews, calling them “overkill.” She told commissioners companies have to pay the $4,500 review fee just for changing or adding equipment on towers, describing that as particularly excessive.

In a separate but related recommendation, Cox also said Pasquotank does not require new cell towers, which can be hundreds of feet tall, to go through public hearings before they can be built. Most other counties do, she said.

That led her to recommend the county amend its cell tower ordinance to require the towers get special use permits, which must be granted by the county Board of Zoning Adjustments. That process will require public notices go out to adjoining property owners, and a public hearing be held before a new cell tower can be permitted and built.

In a follow-up interview, Cox said she's not recommending companies get a special use permit for changing equipment on an existing tower. It's sufficient for county staff to review and approve that, she said.

Notably, Elizabeth City City Council in October approved both a new ordinance for “small cell facilities” and the hiring of a consultant, Carolina Telecommunications Services, of Chapel Hill, to review applications to build or modify them.

According to city staff, the city is poised for a surge in small cell towers, as businesses' and residents' mobile devices consume ever more data. City staff said a consultant would ensure new poles and equipment are necessary and won't be unsightly.

Cox said two new cell towers might be built in Weeksville, but otherwise the county isn't seeing much interest in cell towers.

Cox also said the county already requires cell towers be set back from neighboring properties and structures, and she's not seeking to change those setbacks.

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