County BoA tables decision on AT&T tower

Sussex County Board of Adjustments members got an earful from opponents of a proposed 100-foot-tall communications tower near Bethany Beach on Monday, as well as a lengthy presentation in favor of the required special-use exception from applicant AT&T Wireless. With that much to weigh, BoA members opted not to make a decision on the application at their Sept. 21 meeting and will instead continue consideration of the issue on Oct. 19. The record of the public hearing is, however, closed, so no more input will be accepted.

Pam Scott of AT&T Wireless said the company needs to put the 100-foot monopole communications tower at the back of the gas station, convenience store and Arby’s restaurant at Jefferson Bridge Road and Route 1 to fulfill a federal licensing requirement for “seamless coverage” for their network in states where they are licensed. Scott pointed to a 1- to 1.5-mile gap in coverage along Route 1, in the Bethany Beach area, which AT&T RF engineer Brock Ripple said causes conversations cut in and out, dropped calls and problems initiating calls.

The county requires a special-use exception because the location, next to the pond behind the businesses, is less than 500 feet from residential properties.

AT&T employees participating in selecting the site said they had been given a search area and told to find a site would work for the needed cell tower.

“This area was particularly difficult,” said one employee, explaining that he had talked with the Town of Bethany Beach, the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company and local water companies several times, with none interested in working with AT&T on a location, and had looked at about 33 properties before selecting this one.

“Everything kind of has to fit together,” he added, saying he had talked with some willing landlords. “This property appeared to be the best suited for a cell site. It is a commercial property. The back of the property is screened from residences. It seemed like it would work very well.”

None of the properties considered for the site met the 500-foot requirement that would have avoided the need for a special-use exception. Existing structures were also considered, they said, but weren’t tall enough to fulfill the needs of AT&T. In the case of the Sea Colony high-rises, they were tall enough, but AT&T was unable to get permission to use the towers for an antenna site.

Bethany Beach, they said, “didn’t have anything suitable and also did not want to deal with us. We received a letter from the mayor stating such, with no reason given.”

The nearby BBVFC communications tower – which was itself the source of controversy when originally proposed to top 120 feet inside town limits – was not tall enough for AT&T’s purposes, and with space at a premium on the site, they said the BBVFC would have had a problem squeezing in a needed equipment shelter next to the tower.

The proposed tower, AT&T’s William Bannick noted, could accommodate up to two additional carriers at locations below the nine AT&T antennas.

Ripple said the company takes into account height and clutter (houses, mountains, trees, etc.), to create a map of suitable locations for antennas.

“If we cannot find any existing structures, we will look for property to erect our own tower,” he said, noting that the 100-foot height for the proposed tower was really the minimum required for it to be useful. “If we reduce it, we start to lose coverage to the south and north in the hole we’re trying to fill. … Part of our job to try to mitigate the number of towers we put up,” he added. “If it is shorter, we don’t fill it with the minimum amount of structures necessary.”

Currently, there are three AT&T antenna sites trying to serve the area in the gap, located to the north, south and west. With the coverage predicted for the proposed tower, Ripple said, “we pretty much filled the gap in coverage in the Bethany Beach area.”

Ripple also said that, as each sector of cell coverage provides its own amount of capacity, if AT&T would add antennas at existing towers, it wouldn’t provide enough capacity, especially during the summer, for the commercial areas and traffic on Route 1.

“If it’s not approved, we would still have a significant gap in our coverage area, and our licensing requirements require us to provide reliable coverage and close gaps.”

Ripple noted that the RF emissions report done for the project said the proposed tower would meets FCC standards, at about 1 percent of allowable standards. “We would have to put up 99 more towers like this one in that exact location to approach FCC limits,” he said.

Bruce Dicintio, vice president in charge of valuations for Trice Group, Salisbury, Md., said he was hired to determine whether the installation of the tower would have an adverse impact on property values in the area.

“There’s no quantifiable market data to prove diminution in values of properties of any type by the placement of a cell tower, based on a study of before and after sales, reviewing journals and appraisal literature,” he said.

He did, however, acknowledged that the information upon which he based that opinion was not specific to the Bethany Beach area, where the town has fiercely guarded its building height limit at about a third of the proposed height of the tower and has considered limiting the height of flagpoles. One study looked at properties in Kent County, Del., while the first one of the type was done in Australia, he said.

“They rely on local market information, before and after sales, and there’s no difference that you could quantify after taking into account differences among the properties,” he said.

Opponents complain of lack of notice, object to height

The only citizen speaking in favor of the special-use exception for the tower was the owner of the property, William Pepper. He said his other business uses more than 60 cell phones for employees who haul gasoline, propane and diesel fuel and that the area in question has bad coverage for AT&T’s cell phones. “We can’t reach them, and if there’s ever an emergency [if they have service] they can call 911.”

There were eight opponents present at the Sept. 21 hearing, and most complained of a lack of notice of the hearing and improper posting of the on-site notice required of the county.

Lew Killmer, a Bethany property owner, council member and chairman of the town’s planning commission, said no notice had been sent to the town about the proposal, which he noted is within a couple hundred feet of Bethany Beach corporate limits.

The on-site notice for the hearing, he said, was improperly posted, at a neighboring property with only a vacant house on the site that is also for sale.

“I find it hard to imagine that this will not have a dramatic negative impact on the community,” he said of the proposed tower. “There are homes all around the property. People at Sea Colony will be looking directly at this tower.”

With the town’s building height limit at 35 feet, Killmer said the tower would be a “significant difference to the landscape.”

Killmer was also skeptical of the need for the tower, saying that soon, “the whole area will be emptying out. There are 12,000 to 17,000 people in summer and less than 1,000 in the winter.”

While the tower would not be inside Bethany Beach town limits, Killmer emphasized that the town has “very stringent wireless communications codes for our town, and perhaps you can look at those and, I think, close up a lot of holes in county code. It’s pretty loosey-goosey,” he said.

“We don’t have the ability to challenge this, since it’s not within the town,” he added. “But if you choose to grant this, every provision should be made to disguise this, to make it more pleasing than a 100-foot monopole.” He recommended design changes to make it look like a lighthouse or other suitable design, to make it “more palatable.” AT&T representatives said they didn’t think they had enough space on the site to accommodate a 100-foot-tall lighthouse.

Moreover, Killmer said that while he was not at the hearing as a representative of the Bethany Beach Town Council, he had been sent by the council for fact-finding, “because we got absolutely no information at all. Communications companies are going up and down the coast and asking everyone if they want a tower in their back yard, and they don’t,” he said, “and now they’ve dropped one in right next to our town limits.”

Like many of those present at Monday’s hearing, Bethany Beach resident and Bethany Beach Landowners Association board member Dan Costello said he “got wind of this proposal on Friday,” with “no opportunity to do anything other than a quick survey of the board.”

“I haven’t heard a reason yet why the exception that’s being requested should be approved,” he told BoA members. “This is a quiet residential community,” he emphasized. “It is arced by homes. Bethany prides itself on its height limits. We have fights about it from time to time. And even though this tower is in the county, and that’s why we’re here, it is very close to lots of people who live there. We would enjoy the protection that’s provided us by the 500-foot limit,” he said.

Costello disputed the notion that the tower would not adversely affect property values.

“The idea that we’re going to have a 100-foot monopole with lots of stuff hanging off of it as our southern gateway is not appealing to people,” he said.

One Bethany resident, who is also an AT&T customer, acknowledged that “I occasionally have weak coverage.” But his bigger beef with AT&T was the lack of communication about the proposed tower.

“I’m distressed that I haven’t heard from them, that I have to find out almost by chance that there’s a hearing tonight,” he said. “We argue about how high someone’s allowed to raise a flagpole in our town. We care about our personality in our community. We talk to people, we communicate. These people haven’t communicated to us. If they came to my town council and asked for a hearing, I didn’t hear about it. If they came to the BBLA and asked for the opportunity to make a presentation, I didn’t hear about it, and my wife’s a board member.”

BoA members replied that the county had met advertising requirements for the hearing, advertising in the Sussex Countian and the Wave, and emphasized that the hearing was the time to make commentary or a presentation on the issues.

“These folks have competitors who have no problems with coverage,” the man continued. “I’m not sure how they do it, but they didn’t need a 100-foot tower in my town to do it. That’s going to be the highest structure in our town. I wonder how many of those 33 properties were west of Route 1 and would have accommodated a tower of less than 100 feet. … I understand they’re attempting to improve their service, but they can’t do it with a 100-foot tower, and they can’t put that tower 300 yards off the beach.”

Board members could render a decision on the tower application at their Oct. 19 meeting.

Board approves IR power plant controls

Also on Sept. 21, the Sussex County Board of Adjustments unanimously approved a special-use exception for Indian River Power LLC for installation of additional air pollution controls on Units 3 and 4 at the Millsboro generating station.

The controls are designed to bring the plant into compliance with DNREC regulations and a consent decree made a year ago to help control emissions from the plant.

In August, a public hearing on the issue for DNREC showed strong support for the project, including from state Sen. George Bunting and Rep. John Atkins. Atkins was said to have described the improvements as “a win-win-win situation.”

Additionally, representatives of the applicants described the $500 million project as a boost to the local economy that would retain significant high-paid jobs at the power plant.

The power plant will be permanently shutting down Units 1 and 2 in 2011 and May 2010, respectively. By the end of 2011, they will have finished installing the controls on Units 3 and 4. There will also be a “tie-in outage” in the fall of 2011 to tie in the new equipment, which will start back up with the new controls installed.