On Thursday, for the third and probably final time, Blount County's Board of Zoning Appeals will consider Chattanooga-based Wireless Properties, LLC's application to construct a 180-foot cell tower on one of the highest ridgelines in Townsend.
By placing it there, the proposed tower would extend coverage to AT&T customers throughout Townsend and into the mountains. But its height also means it would be visible to a great many Townsend residents and tourists, and has thus elicited protests from nearby homeowners and a letter of caution from Rep. John Duncan Jr. and Sen. Lamar Alexander.
"We doubt that most East Tennesseans are looking forward to seeing a huge cell tower between themselves and their views of the Smokies. Over 1.4 million visitors a year who enter the Great Smokies through Townsend, and who create good jobs, come to see the mountains, not cell towers," Alexander and Duncan wrote in a Dec. 3 letter.
Jennifer Moore is a Townsend resident and a member of StoneGate Mountain Homeowners Association, a group of 68 homeowners concerned about the tower's height and placement. If granted, the monopole (atop which would sit a six-to-eight foot lightning rod, which Wireless Properties senior vice-president Matt Bates says would be "almost invisible to the eye") would sit within 1,000 feet of her back deck. She worries it would lower her property value and diminish the scenic vistas.
"It's basically like putting an 18-story building on top of a ridgetop," Moore says.
Even though the benefits and drawbacks of the tower will be borne chiefly by Townsend, zoning jurisdiction belongs to Blount County because the site in question falls a few feet outside Townsend's city limits. The Board of Zoning Appeals, or BZA, has twice deferred a vote—once in November and again in December—while community groups like Moore's seek more information.
What Moore and Stonegate Mountain want are coverage maps that prove co-locating (i.e. sharing) towers on one of two other already existing cell tower sites—Rich Mountain and Rudd Hollow—would not provide sufficient coverage to meet AT&T's needs. And if it is shown that co-locating on one of those sites would be insufficient to meet those needs, they want to know the minimum height the tower would need to be in order to fill the coverage gap.
"All we're asking is that Blount County, Wireless Properties, and AT&T do their due diligence in making sure that there's a true need for this," Moore says. "At the end of the day, we understand the importance of the need for towers."
However, Bates, of Wireless Properties, says his company has provided the information Moore is requesting at the two previous meetings, but that she simply refuses to accept it. According to Bates, Rich Mountain is too far away and Rudd Hollow too low in elevation, rendering both unacceptable as alternatives.
The BZA's hands are essentially tied. Their own statutes require they accept or reject an application within 60 days of its submission, so they cannot legally table it again. Wireless Properties could defer its application, but Bates says it will not do so.
"We have now deferred for two months, going above and beyond what is required, to provide additional information and to answer all the questions the Zoning Board proposed to us," Bates says in an e-mail.
The BZA does have a say in the color, height, and camouflaging of the tower. But BZA Chairman Rob Walker says lowering it would probably not resolve Moore's concerns. "From what [Wireless Properties] engineers have told us, if we go down in size they might have to put up another one. So I don't really know if that would be better or worse," Walker says. "It'd still have to above the treeline and it wouldn't look good at all."
And Walker explains that the board cannot deny the application for the reasons Moore or the congressmen stated without risking a lawsuit, "If [Wireless Property] can meet all the setback requirements for a cell tower, I don't know how legally we can deny that.
"I feel for Mrs. Moore and everything, but with the zoning regulations there might not be anything more we can do," Walker says.
Cue the lawyers. Moore and Stonegate Mountain's attorneys have contacted both the BZA and Wireless Properties. But Bates is confident the law's on his side, "If that is the route Mrs. Moore decides to pursue, we feel strongly that the federal regulations and case law are clear regarding the development of cellular towers."