New cell tower site considered

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Pictured, the square with diagonal lines on this map is the approximate location of a proposed AT&T cell tower site in Columbia that will be considered Thursday night. 

AT&T seems to be hedging its bets for a new telecommunications tower near Columbia, as a proposal for a new site will be heard by the Monroe County Land Use and Planning Commission next Thursday.

One agenda item for the meeting, initially planned for Feb. 3 but moved to Feb. 10, is a “petition for area/bulk variance” in order to “construct a 185-foot self-support style wireless communication facility” at a property off Hayden Drive.

The area is just outside of the City of Columbia jurisdiction, in between the Route 3 and Route 158 interchange just north of Frontage Road.

Monroe County and AT&T are currently involved in litigation over a similar tower that was proposed in 2019 at 1322 Valmeyer Road.

Construction of a tower on the Valmeyer Road site, also just outside of Columbia city limits, was disallowed after the Monroe County Zoning Board of Appeals, in a tie vote, failed to recommend approval in September 2020.

AT&T then filed suit in federal court against the zoning board as well as the Monroe County Board of Commissioners for “unlawful denial of a wireless communications facility siting request.”

AT&T alleges the county violated the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 by denying the company a tower in the area.

While litigation in the Valmeyer Road site is ongoing, AT&T may be able to get its tower in the area at the new site if it can acquire a series of approvals.

A petition for a construction setback variance was recently requested by Parallel Towers III, a company which specializes in building such structures throughout the United States. 

Monroe County Zoning Administrator Chris Voelker confirmed the client of Parallel Towers III is AT&T. 

He explained the company is requesting variance of property line setback requirements for the Hayden Drive property, which is zoned as R-3 residential use. 

The company wants to have the setback reduced by 75 percent on the western boundary, 70 percent on the northern property line and 64 percent on the east side of the parcel to facilitate the area the tower would cover if constructed. 

Voelker noted the only filing has been with the Monroe County Zoning and Building Department.  

The planning commission would need to vote to recommend approval to the Monroe County Zoning Board of Appeals, who would then vote on the request.

“If the variance gets approved, (Parallel Towers III) will apply for a permit for a communications support structure,” Voelker said. 

This permit application would then need to be approved by the Monroe County Board. 

During consideration of the proposed cell tower on Valmeyer Road, nearby residents expressed concern about the aesthetics of a tower in the area as well as possible negative impacts to property values in the area.

Similarly, a group of citizens are encouraging public input during Thursday’s meeting. 

The opinions in a letter distributed to neighbors of the new site in question stated a new tower “would not noticeably improve (wireless network) coverage,” adding  this “proposed tower is unnecessary.”

The letter encouraged attendance at the planning commission meeting to express “opinion as to whether or not the proposed tower should be built.”  

One major difference between the Valmeyer Road site and the proposed site on Hayden Drive is  zoning. 

While Hayden Drive site is zoned for residential use, the 1322 Valmeyer Road site is a business district with an existing self-storage facility on the premises.

County officials’ interpretation of zoning code language was one reason for denying proposed tower placement on Valmeyer Road.

County code states “no public office, or principal repair or storage facilities shall be maintained in connection” with public utility stations, exchanges and essential services.

AT&T believed since it would be leasing an area on the parcel and not using the entire Valmeyer Road property, the zoning code stipulation should not apply, resulting in the ongoing lawsuit.

With “utilities,” specifically “other public utility distribution facilities,” being an allowed special use of R-3 residential zoning, an alternate tower site may be in the works for AT&T.

The first step in accomplishing that goal would be recommended approval of a setback variance next week.

The Monroe County Land Use and Planning Committee meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Monroe County Courthouse. 

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