Commission approves stealth towers in residential neighborhoods

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- On a 5-1-1 vote, the Albany City Commission adopted a new telecommunications ordinance Tuesday that, while bringing it in line with new federal laws, also allows for restricted stealth towers in residential neighborhoods.

Commissioner Roger Marietta was the lone dissenter, saying he didn't believe he had enough opportunity to explain to his constituents why a cell tower could "pop up in their backyard," while Commissioner Christopher Pike abstained.

Commissioners spent a portion of the Tuesday meeting debating with officials from both Verizon and AT&T about the ordinance, which allows cell towers in C-R, or a community-residential multiple-dwelling district.

Those districts, according to the city's planning department, are areas "intended to permit residential use of land with various types of multiple dwellings and related uses, including townhouses, duplexes and apartment buildings; and at the intersection of an arterial and collector street, to permit limited sidewalk-oriented commercial uses of a type and size that will primarily serve walking patrons from nearby residences."

It doesn't apply to all residential districts.

Both entities support the new ordinance which they say will allow them to improve and extend service into residential neighborhoods. In turn, the ordinance forces wireless companies to prove they can't provide service to the areas using existing towers or by "co-locating" on a competitor's tower before being allowed to build a new tower.

"The ordinance is a reasonable balance between the needs of the city and its residents and the needs of the wireless community," David Kirk, a lawyer representing Verizon, said.

Kirk said that the ordinance will allow wireless customers who demand access to faster download speeds on their wireless devices better service.

"What was once just a luxury available to a few has become a necessity for many," Kirk said. "This ordinance will allow us to better penetrate homes where more and more people are using their wireless devices."

But before any new tower can be constructed, the ordinance requires that wireless companies be able to prove that they can't "co-locate," or attach themselves to a competitor's tower, and that the area they intend to service isn't already covered by an existing tower.

Those conditions, according to City Attorney Nathan Davis, should encourage wireless providers to co-locate rather than build additional towers.

One concern of the commission, and Commissioner Bob Langstaff in particular, is what requirement there would be on cell companies not to skimp on "stealth" designs for their towers.

Kirk said that the companies wouldn't want to put something up that they'd just have to come back and spend a lot of money to repair.

In a last-minute compromise, Langstaff suggested the stipulation that the city's planning director have the authority to determine what type of stealth tower would be constructed.

After the meeting, Marietta explained that he believes the concept of cell phone towers, even in limited residential neighborhoods, would be a hard sell for his constituents.