NEW HANOVER COUNTY ––– The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved a special use permit for the construction of a telecommunications tower 3-2 Monday in a residential area south of Monkey Junction, 2 miles before Snow’s Cut Bridge.
A spirited opposition launched by the Telfair Summit homeowners association squeezed the narrow approval, with commissioners Deb Hays and Rob Zapple opposing.
At 130 feet tall, the tower was approved with the condition it will incorporate concealment shades, giving it a smoother look compared to more well-known, clunkier models.
The nearest neighbor will be a few hundred feet from the tower, set to be constructed on an undeveloped 6-acre lot. An estimated 26 homes will have a vantage point of the tower once constructed, according to a photographic analysis presented by the HOA’s attorney during Monday’s meeting.
Sandwiched between Telfair Summit and Telfair Forest, the tower is set to be constructed on a parcel that connects the two neighborhoods, with the opposite side of the road marked as a “nature preserve.”
County staff recommended approval. The planning board did not offer a formal recommendation; Monday’s item was one of the first instances this has occurred since the county adopted a host of code changes in May, removing planning board’s official recommendation capacity with special use permits (SUPs) to align with state law.
Commissioners cannot consider any information reviewed in a preliminary SUP forum held by the planning board.
Cell tower in R-15
SUPs call for a quasi-judicial approval process, meaning the commissioners’ chambers temporarily transition into a courtroom during the hearing. Only sworn, competent evidence may be presented and commissioners are bound to find the proposed use meets all four criteria to approve it: The use won’t endanger public health or safety; meets county code; won’t substantially injure surrounding property values; and will be in harmony with the area and is generally in line with the county’s comprehensive land-use plan.
Homeowners aired grievances about being sold property with promises the parcel in question was composed of wetlands and would never be developed. Located in the flood zone, the land likely contains wetlands but isn’t delineated; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers couldn’t weigh in on approving the proposed impacts until the applicants obtained county approval.
Property owners spoke of disturbing wildlife and worried about their property values. Neighbor Louis Cress succinctly summed up his opposition: “It’s terrible. It’s ugly. It’s 134 feet tall. And I am less than three or 400 feet from it.”
Representing the Telfair Forest HOA, attorney Charles Meier cautioned the board against allowing the tower to be built among R-15-zoned properties. “This will set a dangerous precedent for other established residential neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s no evidence that people have bad cell service here.”
Unlike cell tower approvals in the past, the applicant, Communications Tower Group LLC, did not provide coverage maps to depict the need for additional cell service in the area. The company’s attorney, Raleigh-based Thomas Johnson Jr. said the proprietary nature of the maps makes them harder to come by and added they aren’t required by law to provide that information. Instead, he shared a map showing other towers on the south end of the county. U.S. Cellular, T-Mobile, and Dish are interested in utilizing the tower, which is being set up to accommodate three carriers.
“In reality, there’s nothing in that part of the county, and this would be a perfect opportunity,” Johnson told the board. Zapple said he was troubled by the lack of data to qualify the company’s assertion that cell towers are needed in the area.
The team’s site acquisition specialist spoke to the difficulty in finding an eligible location in the area, after being tasked by a carrier to secure a property. In New Hanover County, cell towers must meet a one-to-one setback, meaning the tower must be located the distance of its height (in this case, 130 feet) from all property lines. This rules out many potential properties. Cell tower developers must also obtain property owner permission; Communications Tower Group LLC plans to lease the property, owned by Southeastern Enterprises Inc., the original developer of the Telfair neighborhood.
Chris Ferris, commissioned to conduct a value impact study for the applicant, said he could find no evidence to support either a positive or negative influence on property values as a result of a cell tower in a residential neighborhood. Though there are 37 cell towers in New Hanover County, just one was located in a subdivision, Ferris told the board, which predated the development. He had to look outside the county and found seven statewide, including an example in Cornelius, N.C. There, several of the same model homes in Victoria Bay with a view of a tower sold for a similar price-per-square foot compared to homes without a sightline.
Dr. James Tompin –– whose Ph.D. is in industrial technology –– said he’s worked with the tech his entire career. “I’m very familiar with the technology –– that’s been my life,” he said. “We don’t want it in our community.”
He said his home, located on an elevated ridge with three other neighbors, will be the closest to where the tower is slated to be built. “There are four homes that all sit there together. We call ourselves ‘the old men on the hill club.’ We have solved all the world’s problems except for the cell tower,” he said. “We would like to settle that one also.”
Commissioner Hays inquired whether any alternative sites were available. “Look, I use my cell phone every day. And we all depend upon it. So I’m certainly not anti-tower,” she said. “I just would rather see these things be installed in a more commercial/industrial setting.”
The circumstances were familiar for Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr.
In March 2015, he cast the lone dissenting vote in the board’s denial (meaning, he approved of the project) of a SUP request on an R-15 parcel off Murrayville Road, less than a quarter-mile south of Murrayville Elementary School. Opposition to the project was fierce.
“Seeing people stand up here and cry and say that the cell phone towers are going to provide microwaves that’s going to give people brain cancer . . . none of those things have proven to be true,” he said.
The crowd cheered when the denial vote came through.
But that unpopular vote earned Barfield a nice meal. “I won a nice steak dinner off of a cell phone tower vote,” he said. In an interview, Barfield explained he won a bet with Commissioner Zapple, who at the time of the 2015 Murrayville denial was a freshman member of the board.
“I told Rob, ‘I bet you a steak dinner that they’re gonna sue us,’” he said. “And they sued us and they won.”
T-Mobile and Hellman, Yates and Tisdale on behalf of Angela W. Steele Life Estate, indeed sued the board, even citing Zapple’s motion to deny as relying on conjecture instead of evidence. They were successful in superior court; the county appealed, but it never reached the appellate courts because the company and neighbors came to an agreement and turned the cell tower into a “tree,” deputy county attorney Sharon Huffman explained Monday.
Huffman cautioned the board against denying the item without conclusively citing evidence to support the denial.
If SUPs are allowed in R-15 (or any district) for a specific use, “there is a presumption of harmony unless you are able to point to the competent material and substantial evidence that rebuts that presumption,” Huffman told the board.
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