More cell towers could pop up in Hilton Head Island communities under a proposal endorsed by a town panel Wednesday.
In an attempt to address poor coverage in some areas, planning commissioners unanimously recommended Town Council allow cell towers on property without homes. The move would be made through a change to neighborhood's land-use plans that would cut approval time from nine to two or three months.
Currently, a landowner must request a zoning change from the town if a community's master plan does not allow a cell tower. The process requires public hearings and meetings before town committees before going to council for final approval. A minor change to the master plan, however, can be approved much quicker by a town administrator.
Public-notice requirements and design standards would still be required, town officials said.
An island task force of industry experts told Town Council in December 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.
"Carriers have the money. We can help them and get out of the way," task force chairman Jim Collett told the planning commission. "These are investors in our future."
The island's tree canopy and flat terrain make for spotty coverage, he said.
Poor service became a prominent issue in the 2010 mayoral election, and council made it a priority last year to improve the island's wireless service.
"We are falling behind," Commissioner Gail Quick said.
HOW IT WOULD WORK
Towers would be allowed next to condo regimes and apartment complexes, as well as on commercial, town and other land. Those areas have a greater density of residents in a smaller area, which means more coverage and capacity is needed, senior town planner Anne Cyran said.
Those properties also tend to border large areas of homes that would benefit from cell tower placement, she said.
"You couldn't otherwise conceivably locate" a tower to fill existing coverage gaps, she said.
All owners within 100 feet of a planned tower and affected property or regime managers would be notified. The tower would also require approval from property owner associations.
Another proposed change would base a tower's distance from homes on its "fall zone" -- the area where a tower could fall if it collapsed -- plus 20 feet.
Current rules require towers to be farther away from homes, which eliminate the most-suitable sites, said attorney Jonathan Yates, who works with builder American Tower.
Most towers are made to collapse into themselves, as opposed to falling outward, requiring shorter setbacks, Yates said.
The town requires a distance of 429 feet for a 150-foot tall tower.
The proposed change would lessen that to about 90 feet.
Jack Mitchell, regional director for AT&T in Charleston, said 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.
"All bandwidth used last year alone is greater than the bandwidth used over the past five years," Mitchell said. "If we put up a tower today, within three to six months that tower will have reached its capacity."
Proliferation of the use of apps -- now a roughly $30 billion a year industry -- "is sucking up a lot of capacity," he said.
"We push investment elsewhere if regulations are unfriendly," Mitchell said. "If that happens, you're talking a year to two year delay for a new tower."
In the meantime, service continues to lag while demand increases, he said.
The proposal now moves to council's Planning and Development Standards Committee.