Mebane’s city council approved a rezoning request Monday night to allow a 195-foot tall monopole cell tower to be constructed at 4449 Landi Lane north of the city.
As it had at the planning board meeting, the proposal drew opposition from neighbors along Landi Lane, who are black and criticized the proposal as a threat to safety, health, and property values in their neighborhood.
The property owner, Adelana Nelson, who is also black, was present, but did not speak.
According to Towercom’s representative, the company will lease the property from Nelson for five years, with various potential extensions.
This time around, however, the public hearing on the rezoning also brought out several Mill Creek residents, who are white, who said that the problems with cell reception in their area substantiate the need for the additional coverage provided by the new nearby tower.
Raleigh lawyer Tom Johnson, who represented Towercom, the owner of the future tower, explained, as he had to the planning board, that for Verizon cell customers, service in the area is “unreliable” and often results in “an excessive [number of] dropped calls.”
His description was backed up by three people who live in the Mill Creek subdivision in the northern portion of the city.
Johnson also attributed the increasing number of people working from home as a contributing factor to the growing popularity of cell phone use.
Dish Network, which is developing its own cell service, also hopes to have a spot on the tower, Johnson explained.
Before the planning board Johnson had acknowledged that while the monopole was tall, he said it would “not have a large footprint” in the area. He showed several simulated photographs that showed it in the distance.
Meanwhile, Landi Lane neighbors were decidedly unimpressed.
Dr. Shirley Conyard, who said she lives directly across from the site for the new tower, complained about the potential health risks associated from living close to the cell tower, as well as the potential reduction in property tax values.
Conyard also said her own cell phone service gets “very good reception” with “no dropped calls.”
“All you’re interested in,” she said, “is a tower; you’re not thinking about people.”
Conyard insisted that the health consequences were detrimental, adding, “It’s not even good to have a lot of power lines.”
“Why would you want to pollute a clean and healthy area,” she challenged.
Lydia Paylor also raised the issue of “potential radiation” from the cell tower.
Curtis Bryant, who lives on Landi Lane, challenged the council members, “If it was your grandkids, how would you feel about it?”
A similar point was made by Arthur Holt, “If it was in your backyard, would you allow it?”
Johnson explained that state and federal law have established that local jurisdictions, such as Mebane, may not consider the health issues associated with cell towers. Though he didn’t use the term, federal rules have “preempted” any local zoning regulations with respect to health.
Local ordinances may not impose more stringent limits with respect to “environmental effects” on radio frequency emissions than those adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under federal rules and regulations.
While Johnson made the point about the statutory inability of the city council to consider the health-related issues several times, neighbors continued to urge rejection of the cell tower because of what claimed could be its potentially dangerous health effects.
Tomeka Ward-Satterfield, a recent appointment to the city’s new racial equity advisory committee, told the council that there were “racial overtones of this decision.” She called on the council to use unspecified “racial equity tools” to evaluate the issue.
Meanwhile, several residents gave their experiences with cell service in Mill Creek.
David Whitley said he was a living example of the television commercial that includes the famous line “Can you hear me now?” because of poor cell service.
Susan Semonite said she appreciated the company’s plans “for stronger cell service,” because of difficulties she’s face with cell service on the back (Orange County) portion of Mill Creek.
Cristie Watson wrote to the council: “My parents live near Mill Creek, and their cell phone service is unreliable at best. Sometimes I dial them only to have their phones go straight to voicemail; they will not even receive a notification that I called. Often, we will be talking, and the call will drop without warning. This lack of service is a growing cause of concern as my parents age – they are both already well into their seventies – and I worry that they will be unable to reach out for emergency help when they need it.”
Conyard took a jab at the Mill Creeks residents’ desire for better cell service, “Have the tower placed in Mill Creek,” she suggested.
After the public hearing was closed, councilman Tim Bradley said he felt that “there is a need for the tower” and he could see “no grounds to turn it down.” He also took exception to the suggestion that the council should consider racial issues in connection with granting the cell tower special use permit.
The council voted 5-0 for Bradley’s motion to approve the special use permit requested for the cell tower.