SNOW HILL– A text amendment approved this week will provide more flexibility in the placement of cell towers on agricultural land.
The Worcester County Commissioners this week voted 5-2 to approve a text amendment that will reduce the distance telecommunication towers are required to be separated from residential structures in certain cases. Property owners will now be able to seek a special exception if they want to put a tower less than 1,000 feet from a house.
“What we’re requesting is just the ability to ask the zoning board of appeals to consider a reduction of up to 500 feet,” said Kristen Stelzer, development director for Arcola Towers.
The text amendment adds a new subsection that allows the separation distance between antennas or towers and an existing residential structure to be reduced from 1,000 feet to no less than 500 feet if a special exception is obtained from the Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals. Stelzer said her company had proposed the change because there was a farm in Snow Hill where they wanted to place a tower. Existing family homes, however, made meeting the 1,000 foot separation distance difficult. She said county staff had worked with Arcola Towers to develop a text amendment that would give applicants in cases like this one the chance to seek a special exception from the board of zoning appeals.
“We feel like this is an excellent compromise,” she said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said that a text amendment applied county-wide, not just to this property.
“You’re opening it up to every property,” he said.
Stelzer said that the board of zoning appeals would consider each request for a special exception. Snow Hill resident James Kurtz said it was on his farm that Arcola Towers wanted to install a tower.
“In our area of Public Landing we have such poor, poor service,” he said. “This tower is not just about us it would advantage our community greatly.”
He said he wanted Arcola Towers to install a tower on his property but that the ideal location—one that would not have a negative impact on farming operations—was less than 1,000 feet from his son’s house.
“While it’s separate deeds we are a family operation there,” he said.
His son, Josh Kurtz, said the tower company had explored other properties in the area but that they had easements preventing tower installation. He added that neighbors wanted the tower installed.
“They’re super excited about having cell service,” he said.
Commissioner Ted Elder said the proposed amendment seemed like a good compromise.
I think we need to preserve as much of our good farmland as we can on the other hand we have a serious problem in many areas of the county with cell phone reception,” he said.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom agreed.
“There is a need in a lot of rural areas…for better cell phone coverage,” he said. “I believe this is the right thing to do here because it gives us more flexibility and again, the board of zoning appeals will have the option of looking at this on a case by case basis.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked if there was a way to permit the tower on the Kurtz property without creating a text amendment that would apply to the entire county. Staff said that under current code the separation distance could only be reduced if the tower was concealed.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said that even if the text amendment was approved, property owners would have to get special exception approval from the board of zoning appeals on a case by case basis.
“This, although it’s for everybody, doesn’t mean everybody’s going to get it,” he said. “Unfortunately, in this day and age we live and die by the cell phone. Cell phone coverage is that much more important at this time than it used to be.”
The commissioners voted 5-2, with Bunting and Bertino opposed, to approve the amendment.