Hilton Head council endorses changes to ease cell tower placement

tbarton@islandpacket.comJune 19, 2012 

  • In other business:

  • Hilton Head Island Town Council adopted a $70 million budget for 2012-13 that includes a 2-percent merit pay increase for staff and maintains existing service levels without raising property taxes. It also includes large decreases in spending for debt and public improvements. Council voted unanimously. The spending plan takes effect July 1.

Paige Fiedler and her husband had just moved into their home in Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island when a woman collapsed outside their home.

Fiedler rushed to help the woman, who lost consciousness in her arms. Best Buy employees delivering appliances to the couple's home tiried to call for an ambulance on their cell phone but could not get a signal. After several attempts, they finally got through to a dispatcher, Fiedler said.

"That's an example of the troubles we've had just in the three weeks we've lived on the island," she told Town Council at its meeting Tuesday. "We also both work out of our home, and it's difficult to do so. You can get a signal two blocks away, but not in our home."

Moments later, the council gave its initial approval to changes aimed at making it easier to place cell towers and antennas on the island.

Council members, in an attempt to address poor coverage in some areas, unanimously approved first reading of an ordinance that would allow cell towers on property without homes on them. The move would be made through a minor change in neighborhood's land-use plans, as opposed to a zoning change. That would cut approval time from nine to two or three months.

The ordinance requires another reading by council before it's adopted. Towers would also require approval from respective property owner associations.

The island has pockets where it is difficult to get a signal, mostly in Port Royal and Hilton Head plantations and areas of Sea Pines, according to Lavarn Lucas, chief of the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division.

"But, we very seldom get any specific complaints about people being unable to reach a dispatcher," Lucas said after the meeting.

An island task force of industry experts told Town Council in December that wireless carriers were not spending to improve service because approval for new towers takes too long, and rules about where and how they can be built are too restrictive.

The island's tree canopy and flat terrain make for spotty coverage, according to industry experts and wireless carriers. Poor service became a prominent issue in the 2010 mayoral election, and council made it a priority last year to improve it.

Jack Mitchell, regional director for AT&T in Charleston, told council an "explosion" of wireless data services is available today and growing exponentially. However, available bandwidth and the need for more towers on the island to close coverage gaps have not changed.

"No longer is the home office a computer or printer -- it's being done on smartphones," Mitchell said. "It's critical that your residents and visitors ... have the bandwidth to do what they need to do."

He said AT&T plans to announce today a new cell site on Hilton Head to serve its customers. He said another cell site will likely be announced later this summer.

After the meeting, Mayor Drew Laughlin called the changes "progress in the right direction," but would like to see the town go further by removing restrictions on cell tower placement inside gated communities and leave the decision to property owners associations.

Related content

  1. Hilton Head panel endorses changes to ease cell tower placement: May 16, 2012
  2. Hilton Head council endorses $70M town budget: June 12, 2012

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