Company asks council to intercede in Hilton Head cell tower dispute

tbarton@islandpacket.com

February 17, 2014 

A celltower disguised as a pine tree can be seen in this Google street view of Stone Quarry Road, Charlotte.

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A company that has waited months to build a cell tower in Hilton Head Plantation as appeals drag on has asked Town Council to intercede, abandoning what was intended to be a fast-track approval process.

Town staff recently rescinded its approval of a 149-foot cell tower inside the gated community at the request of Crown Castle International, which will take the matter to council. That would end one of two pending appeals challenging the tower's construction, and the tower maker hopes it will also speed the process. But it could be June before the tower's construction is allowed. Construction was originally planned to begin late last year and be completed by now. A public hearing on the new application is set for 9 a.m. April 2 before the Hilton Head Island Planning Commission, which will make a recommendation for council to take up in May.

At least one council member, however, is not sure how he will vote.

"I think it's been a long time waiting for a cell tower, which is needed for the community, but am unsure about its location," said councilman John McCann, who represents parts of Hilton Head Plantation. "I just don't have enough details."

Council, in an attempt to encourage cell tower construction, passed an ordinance in 2012 to allow staff approval of towers instead of zoning changes that require a public hearing and two council votes.

A telecommunications task force has reported that wireless carriers were not spending to improve service because approval for new towers took too long, and rules about where they could be built were too restrictive.

The ordinance was meant to cut approval time and ease placement within residential areas. In doing so, council required property owners within 100 feet of the tower to be notified of the proposed change and that a majority of affected owners be in favor. However, it did not define who is considered "affected."

Senior town planner Jayme Lopko approved a minor change to the plantation's land-use plans in October to allow the tower. Her decision is being challenged by homeowner Brad Wainwright.

Crown Castle's request would turn back the clock and require the council to take up the matter. It also would require that owners within 350 feet of the tower receive notice and that the public be allowed to weigh in, Lopko said Monday.

Essentially, the company hopes to move faster by taking the longer route.

Hilton Head Plantation's board of directors supports the request."The minor zoning change was supposed to be an expeditious process ... and it has obviously turned out to be anything but," said plantation general manager Peter Kristian. "Moving it to council seems to set it more on a date-certain course, where it goes before the Planning Commission and then council for an up or down vote in May."

That process also would provide a chance for more public input without allowing a few people to derail the process, Kristian added.

Another resident, Jeffrey Kaplan, is challenging approval by senior town planner Nicole Dixon to subdivide the property, which allowed the zoning change that Wainwright is challenging. Kaplan argues the division is prohibited by the community's covenants.

His appeal is scheduled for March 19 before the Planning Commission.

"We see that as more (an administrative) issue that could easily be corrected," Kristian said, adding Wainwright's appeal likely would have resulted in prolonged litigation.

Attempts Monday to reach a Crown Castle representative were unsuccessful. Wainwright declined to comment.

The tower would be disguised as a pine tree, between White Tail Deer Lane and Dolphin Head Drive, on land owned by the property owners association and used for a trail and utility easements. It initially would serve Verizon customers, but as many as three other carriers could be added later, according to the application to the town.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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