Hilton Head Plantation residents object to new cell tower

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 15, 2013 

A group of Hilton Head Plantation residents is objecting to a cell tower that telecommunications officials say would lead to fewer dropped calls and faster connection speeds for some wireless customers.

Fifty-seven residents signed a petition opposing the 149-foot tower. They cited its size, its closeness to homes and the lack of a vote by plantation residents.

The petition, however, did not sway the Town of Hilton Head Island's Design Review Board, which voted Tuesday to grant initial approval of the tower's design. Final approval is expected at the board's Oct. 8 meeting, said town land management official Teri Lewis.

The plantation's Architecture Review Board has endorsed the project, which would include a 10-foot-high fence and a landscaped buffer to screen it from surrounding homes.

Town staff said it intends to approve a minor change Monday to the plantation's land-use plans to allow the tower, despite residents' protests, said senior town planner Jayme Lopko.

Homeowner Brad Wainwright doesn't like the sound of that."I bought my property because I like the open space, and this is the equivalent of a 14-story commercial building being erected 200 feet from my house," Wainwright said.

The tower would serve Verizon Wireless customers at first. Three other carriers could be added later, and AT&T has expressed interest in being one of them, according to plantation general manager Peter Kristian.

Disguised as an exceptionally tall pine tree, the tower would be erected between White Tail Deer Lane and Dolphin Head Drive on land provided to cell-tower provider Crown Castle International in an easement agreement. Construction is expected to begin within a month and be completed by the end of year, Kristian said. Crown Castle also awaits a town building permit to proceed.

Verizon already has a cell site on a water tower in the community and intends to expand to an existing tower near Baygall Road, he said. That would provide nearly complete coverage for the community, said Jim Collett, chairman of an island task force seeking to improve wireless service.

All three locations would offer Verizon's 4G LTE service, which can better penetrate trees and buildings and offers faster download speeds and better streaming, Collett said.

Attempts Friday to reach a Verizon representative for comment were unsuccessful.

Strengthening wireless coverage is important for the island's economy, according to Collett. Tourists and business people come to the island expecting flawless coverage, he said.

Better wireless service also makes homes more attractive to buyers, according to Kristian.

"Today, almost everyone has a cellphone, and more and more people are disconnecting their land-line phones and going wireless," he said.

Hilton Head Plantation installed antennae throughout the gated community in 2005 as an alternative to traditional cell towers that were deemed unsightly. Eight years later, the community still grapples with poor service because the network of antennae mounted to 70- and 80-foot-tall telephone poles is not high enough above the dense tree canopy, Collett said.

The antenna systems also are not as cost-effective as taller towers that produce stronger signals and broader coverage, he said.

For more than five years, major cellphone carriers have been badgered to invest in the plantation and improve cellphone and data services there, according to a committee appointed by the plantation's board of directors to study the issue.

"Well, in the words of Verizon, 'They can hear us now,' " the report says.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom

Related content: Improvements to mobile networks continue on Hilton Head; new cell phone tower planned: March 31, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/03/31/2444465/improvements-to-mobile-networks.html

Verizon to expand cellphone coverage on Hilton Head Island: April 18, 2012 http://www.islandpacket.com/2012/04/18/2041318/verizon-to-expand-cellphone-coverage.html

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