After a denied application in January and a subsequent lawsuit, AT&T’s fight to build a cell tower over the objections of residents will last for at least another month.
This afternoon the Board of Zoning Appeals delayed a vote on the structure for at least another month – despite Planning Commission approval – to allow Muir Woods subdivision residents to hire an engineer to study AT&T’s newest radio frequency findings.
AT&T’s original application for the tower was previously denied by both the Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. The move sparked a lawsuit filed by an AT&T contractor, but citing jurisdiction, it was swiftly dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Steele.
The company agreed to reduce the height of the proposed tower to 140 feet and also agreed to construct an eight-foot privacy fence, in order to gain Planning Commission approval Thursday, Oct. 8. AT&T claims it needs to build the tower in order to give its coverage area the strongest possible signal.
Spokespersons for the company had to come in front of the board Monday to ask for changes in the height requirement and the setback requirement from neighboring property lines. The current ordinance doesn’t support a 140-foot tower and also restricts the setback distance to 200 feet. The proposed location is 184.5 feet from the nearest property line, AT&T attorney N. Andrew Rotenstreich said.
He told the board that the size of the property at 6311 Cottage Hill Road made it impossible to meet the setback requirements and that the strength of the signal required the variance in tower height because of the elevation of the parcel.
Sean Van Maitre, a radio frequency engineer, said the tower is needed in the location because of a gap in coverage along Cottage Hill Road. Specifically, he mentioned areas of Knollwood Drive and Rolling Acres. He explained that alternate locations, like a site behind Publix on Hillcrest Road, wouldn’t work.
“We knew that was significantly outside the area we needed,” he said.
He said in situations where a gap in coverage exists, AT&T will try to locate a tower near the center of the problem area, which happens to be at the site less than 200 feet from Muir Woods residents.
Along with the company’s desire to build the tower in the center of the gap area, Van Maitre told the board, other sites recommended by Muir Woods residents created too much interference because they weren’t far enough away from other AT&T towers and others were in areas zoned residential, whereas the proposed site is zoned for business.
Board Chairman William Guess asked Van Maitre about placing an antenna on a pole already built on Mobile Christian Academy grounds. Van Maitre said C Spire owns the tower and would require the antenna be placed below one operated by the rival company, which is also too low to meet AT&T’s needs.
“It wouldn’t be high enough,” Van Maitre said. “It would be 60 to 70 feet at the most.”
Don Williams, the brother-in-law of a Muir Woods resident, asked the board to hold over a decision until the homeowner’s association could hire its own radio frequency engineer in order to study the claims made by AT&T.
“This project was denied last January by this board,” Williams said. “For about nine months AT&T has had a chance to (prepare). The residents haven’t seen what’s been delivered to the commission and haven’t had time to prepare.
“Once that tower goes up it never comes down,” Williams added. “They’ve waited nine months, what’s one more.”
Gigi Armbrecht, an AT&T employee, said the decision could affect as many as 3,480 households inside the coverage gap area. That’s 7,866 people “positively affected” by the new tower,” she said.
“We are proposing that this tower have room for three additional cell company antennas,” she said. “That would make for less towers.”
She said denying the tower’s proposed location would create a safety issue, as 70 percent of 911 calls come from cell phones, citing a study from the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission. She added the same study suggested by the end of this year, only “19 percent of new households will have a landline,” making the need for better cell service important.
“You can’t let 52 households decide what the other 3,428 are going to have,” Armbrecht said.
David Akridge, Mobile County Public Schools’ executive manager of information technology, told the board members better cell coverage would assist the school system in a pilot program to give students at Burns Middle School cellular WiFi hotspots as part of the system’s bring your own device program, launched about 18 months ago.
“We feel like it’s important and something the school board is in favor of,” he said.
Muir Woods resident William Finnegan said the group is in favor of “great cell service” and that’s not at issue. He said he believes AT&T can achieve what it wants to with improved coverage without building a 140-foot tower in residents’ backyards.
Finnegan offered several alternatives to the proposed site, including property behind Publix on Hillcrest, the pole already in place at Mobile Christian and on property at Burns Middle School. He also mentioned sites at Asia Garden and at Port City Church.
“That’s the real story,” Finnegan said. “I believe if you find an alternate site you’ll get the coverage you need.”
AT&T representatives said they had researched the previous locations and they wouldn’t work.
The Rev. Emile Noel III, a Mobile native and priest currently living in Louisiana, said he was concerned over the proximity to his family’s cemetery, which would be in front of the proposed cell tower. He added that the cemetery was listed on the state’s historic cemeteries registry and any tower placement near it would have to be reviewed on the federal level.
Councilwoman Bess Rich also spoke on behalf of residents of Muir Woods, which is in her council District 6. She told the board that allowing time for the residents to hire their own engineer might help restore their trust in the process. She also reminded board members the final say on the tower does not necessarily rest with them, as the residents can appeal it to the City Council within 15 days.