Midville City Council members must determine if they can serve the residents and still abide by federal law.
Approximately 30 Midville residents overwhelmingly voiced their opposition November 1 to a proposed 255-foot 5G cell phone tower right in the middle of town.
The proposed site is at 125 N. Jones Street, next to the Midville Express, on property owned by Charles and Patricia Brannen. The Brannens and New York-based Tillman Infrastructure have already entered into a lease agreement. The tower would be designed with a break point about 50 feet from the top enabling it to collapse and fall on the Brannen property in the event of an accident. If approved, the tower would be unmanned except for routine maintenance conducted once per month.
Represented by Attorney Andrew Rotenstreich, Tillman has an agreement with AT&T to build towers where the telecommunications company needs better coverage. Tillman leases the property from owners and builds and owns the towers on which they lease space to AT&T. The potential exists for space to be rented to other carriers that wish to improve coverage in Midville.
“Think of it as a vertical strip mall,” Rotenstreich explained. “So hopefully by building this tower, if allowed, it would be the last tower needed in Midville.”
Under the current zoning, cell towers are allowed with a special use that must be approved by the City Council. However, the city’s ordinance limits the height of towers to a maximum height of 50 feet. Therefore, Rotenstreich has asked for a variance for construction of the tower.
AT&T is the national First Net Provider, a special communications system reserved for first responders and emergency personnel. The proposed tower would provide coverage for First Net. The communication system was created after the 9/11 attacks, which uncovered a need for placing all emergency responders on one network during a disaster.
Rotenstreich said AT&T determined the search range that would enhance the Midville coverage and after looking for an existing tower that could be used, they determined the two existing towers were unusable. One was located outside the search range and the other, the CSX tower near the railroad, proved to be too short and already full of equipment.
Resident George Holloway spoke in opposition first, asking the council to deny the request and suggesting that Tillman find another location to construct the tower.
“I can’t imagine a 250-foot tower helping with the beautification of Midville,” resident Ralph Sandeford added and pointed out that although the city needs better cell phone coverage, he did not agree with putting the tower in the middle of the city.
Resident Joan Poythress sarcastically suggested that Tillman construct the tower on top of the City Hall building.
While most residents’ comments were met with applause while they expressed their concern about the aesthetic effects of the proposed tower, aesthetics cannot be a factor in the council’s decision as to whether to approve or deny the request. In fact, the deciding factor may be whether or not the council can deny the request and not be in violation of federal law.
Rotenstreich said 5G towers have only been around in the United States about four years, although over a decade in Europe. He pointed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which states there is no evidence that 5G cell towers present any health risks. Regardless, federal law takes away any discussion about potential health risks in deciding whether to approve the ordinance variance as well, he said.
City Attorney Jon Levis explained that the Federal Law Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that construction of cell phone towers can’t generally be denied based on environmental factors and health effects. Additionally, the law prevents prohibition of cell towers. Since the city’s ordinance allows only for a maximum of 50- foot towers, far beneath the minimum required to enhance communication, it could be deemed as prohibitive.
The issue turned out to be not as simple as honoring the public’s request. In order to address the dilemma in more detail before deciding the issue, the City Council tabled it until the December 6 meeting. .Councilwoman Norma Thorne is not voting on the issue since her property adjoins the proposed cell phone tower site.