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County passes amended cell tower ordinance

Jones: ‘You do not have a voice now’

Posted: October 24, 2013 4:38 p.m.
Updated: October 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Haley Atkinson/C-I

"You do not have a voice now," Kershaw County Councilman Jimmy Jones said to residents whose property owners adjoin cell phone towers during council's Tuesday night meeting. Jones was speaking in reference to a vote by council to approve an amendment that would lessen the restrictions on the placement of cell towers in the county.

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Residents filled up the Kershaw County Council chamber Tuesday evening, even standing along a wall and in the Kershaw County Government Center’s lobby. The reason: the anticipated third and final reading of an amended ordinance governing cell towers, updating the definition of a fall zone and how far apart cell phone towers can be placed.

The meeting included 19 people speaking during public comment, 16 of whom spoke specifically on the cell tower amendment. Several of those speakers live on Lonsome Pine Trail, including Wanda Bass and Sharon Jones who expressed concerns about cell towers being built by their homes.

“(While) we need better communication in that area, I disagree with the location that you’re looking at for this tower. I’m asking that you please not destroy the tranquility of this area,” Sharon Jones said.

Lonesome Pine Trail resident Richard Cox said he was worried about health risks connected to having a cell tower “less than 250 feet” from his home and also asked that council “reconsider” the placement of new towers.

However, there were also many comments from residents strongly in support of seeing more cell towers built in the county. Lucille McLaughlin, who resides in the Lake Wateree area, spoke about a traumatic event on July 4 where her granddaughter was stung by a wasp and went into shock. McLaughlin said she and her family could not obtain cell service to call for 911.

“We kept getting disconnected,” McLaughlin said. “We finally got an operator from Fairfield County. At no time were we in Fairfield county, but they helped us get an ambulance for this little girl who almost died because we don’t have enough cell towers … it’s wrong. People’s lives are at stake.”

Connect South Carolina’s Lindsay Conrad also spoke, saying more towers in the area would improve broadband service.

“Broadband can truly impact economic development of a particular area, as well as healthcare, public safety and education,” Conrad said.

Rick Williams, of the Lake Wateree Association said he is “100 percent in favor of cell towers.” He said that if Kershaw County provides the improved infrastructure, more businesses will come to the area. Williams also mentioned what he said is the importance of cell reception in regards to safety.

David McCaskill, who also lives in the Lake Wateree area, made his plea for more cell phone towers. McCaskill described himself as a part-time Lake Wateree resident who was enjoying his lake home on one particular day: July 4, 2009.

“We had done all the fun things we wanted to do … we’re all sitting around about midnight, everyone ready to go to bed, when my mother complained of a headache,” he said.

McCaskill said he, “like anyone would,” gave her some medicine for the pain and saw her to bed.

“About 3:30 in the morning, my brother called for me and we knew something was wrong, terribly wrong, and like most part-time residents we have our cell phones (in place of land lines) and there’s nothing worse than dialing 911 and getting nothing. For 10 to 15 minutes, panic, standing outside dialing 911 trying to get through. Forty-five minutes later, an ambulance rolled through. That’s a long time when you’re watching your mother die.”

McCaskill said increased cell coverage is essential for safety issues such as that.

“When you need 911, you need it,” he said.

Following public comment, Council Chairman Gene Wise asked that Planning and Zoning Director Carolyn Hammond come forward and bring the public up to date on what decisions had been made up to that point and what the commission had determined at its Oct. 14 meeting. He said he wanted everybody in the audience to know exactly what has happened up to Tuesday’s meeting.

“The things that you have before you … that you approved at first and second readings,” Hammond said, “were to change the distance between towers from 5,000 feet to 1,500 feet and then, also, you approved at first and second readings to amend the fall zone to allow the adjoining property owners to grant an easement to allow the fall zone to occur on (their) property as long as no structure occurred in the fall zone easement area.

Hammond noted that, on third reading, county staff and County Attorney Ken DuBose proposed adding language that a cell tower’s distance from a public road be equal to its height. She said that was followed by a different amendment by Councilman Jimmy Jones.

“So, at third reading…when Jones proposed that a special exception area of 2,000 feet from the tower considering a residence be proposed, you asked that that be sent back to the planning and zoning commission for consideration,” Hammond said. “The planning commission met Oct. 14 and considered several options. They were provided with a list of options (of what) other counties did and how they handled it. They were given a list of distances from the tower base that other counties did (with) provisions for residences within that distance and also provisions within that distance for property owners to come forward and have a voice to speak and address concerns about towers’ location.”

Hammond said the planning commission decided -- due to balancing added bureaucracy, the need for service in rural areas, security issues and aesthetics -- to put in a provision where cell tower applicants have to notify all adjacent property owners so those owners can request public information meeting held by the planning department. She said the planning director and applicant would attend the meetings to address adjacent property owners’ questions and concerns.

“After that, the tower application would become complete and the tower application for the permit would be issued. So, basically, they would be informed and notified of the tower, the application would become complete and the permit would be issued. That is what the commission approved.”

“What I just heard you say is that they get notified but that’s it,” Jones said. “They have no voice.”

“They’re notified and they’re given an opportunity to express their concerns and have their questions answered,” Hammond replied.

“For what?” Jones asked.

“They’re not given a voice to say, ‘I don’t want the tower,’” Hammond continued.

“So, for what? Why are we even bringing them in?” Jones asked.

“So, that’s right. The only thing they’re brought in for is to have questions answered,” Hammond said.

“What I say is the truth,” Jones said. “Why are we bringing them in? I just want to make that clear.”

Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr. said residents have the right to apply for what are known as text amendments. Hammond concurred, saying citizens or council can apply for a text amendment.

“(Citizens) still don’t have a say-so or a voice,” Jones said. “It’s pretty much this is the way it’s going to be as long as the application process has been filled out correctly.”

Hammond agreed that was the case and, answering a question from Vice Chair Stephen Smoak, said her office receives applications for specific sites.

“The zoning ordinance says that cell towers are allowed in specific zoning ordinances, so if a tower application comes into me and it meets all requirements … and meets (the) correct distance from another tower and is in the correct zoning district, then it can go there,” she said, adding that cell tower companies usually initiate the process.

Smoak motioned to amend the original second reading of the ordinance to include the version of the amendment recommended from the planning commission’s Oct. 18 meeting. Councilman Tom Gardner seconded.

Jones then offered another amendment of his own, noting that “an individual from Lake Wateree” had “erroneously” labeled him as trying to block cell towers “because we tried to have some discussion” during council’s previous meeting.

“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Jones said. “What I am against is not giving adjoining property owners a voice in the cell tower process. I believe we should ensure the rights of everyone within the fall zone or who has to live with the flashing lights or tower in their face day and night … many of you who live or own property in the Lake Wateree area know me or have called me in the past, many times. As I’ve always answered the phone and been there for you, I’m going to continue supporting you. You’re going to get your cell phone towers and service tonight.

“I’m also going to support those people who have property adjoining the potential cell tower locations. The amendment I propose tonight is a fair one. It’s less restrictive than those in some surrounding counties.”

Jones said Hammond had contacted a representative from a cell tower company and that the representative had not objected to the provision in his amendment.

“The main difference between my amendment and what’s on the table already is whether or not the adjoining property owner’s have a voice,” he said. “My amendment gives them a voice, it doesn’t stop a cell tower from going there; it just gives them a voice. Legislation currently on the table, that came from the planning and zoning commission does not. All it gives them is notification. Folks, that is just not right.”

He then made a motion to amend the amendment with his language and asked DuBose to explain it to council. DuBose said Jones’ provision would require a cell tower applicant to obtain a special exception -- through a planning commission and board of zoning appeals process -- if the tower’s distance from a dwelling is one and quarter times its height. That is an increase from the current language that a tower must be no closer than one times its height from a dwelling.

Wise asked if other counties required similar types of processes as the one suggested by Jones’ amendment. DuBose said some counties require that type of action, some do not.

Smoak asked if Jones’ amendment had been presented to Hammond and the planning commission. DuBose said it was, with the commission being provided a chart of distances to use if they chose to notify adjacent property owners and also chose to give those owners to express their desire to have or not to have a tower near their property.

Answering a question from Wise, Hammond confirmed the commission did not elect chose Jones’ option.

“The amendment I proposed -- (applicants) can go before the zoning board of appeals and with the board of appeals it can be like a hearing,” Jones said, responding to a question from Tucker. “They will hear it; they’ll hear both sides before they make a decision. So it does give the adjoining property owners a voice.”

Jones also pointed out that Hammond and Kirby Wayne of Sandhill Telephone had not expressed objection to his proposed amendment. Wise asked Hammond if there had been discussion amongst the commission and service providers about the process and, if so, what comments they had.

“They were comfortable with this process. They’re used to this process,” Hammond said.

“They’re used to Mr. Jones’ process?” Wise asked. “They’re used to the process he’s just recommended?”

“Yes,” Hammond replied.

Wise asked if anyone would second Jones’ motion; it died due to a lack of a second. At that point, council returned to consider Smoak’s motion to accept the planning commission’s version of the amendment to the ordinance.

“I’m in awe,” Jones said when Wise asked for discussion. “I can’t believe what just happened. I can’t believe that my colleagues (did) what they just did and I’m going to go after each and every one of you.

“You just heard the planning and zoning director say that the service provider is used to dealing with the amendment I proposed tonight. That’s what they do in most counties. But what you did … you’ve given absolute authority with no repercussion to them coming in and doing this.

“I support the cell towers tonight because we need it. I’m going to vote for it, but I am very disappointed in this county council in not giving citizens a voice in something they’ve worked for their whole life and that is their property. It’s wrong.”

No one else had any comment and council, Jones included, unanimously passed the planning commission’s version of the motion.

Wise then asked for a motion to adopt third and final reading of the ordinance as amended. Smoak, who made the motion, said he wanted to “dispel the notion” that council was arbitrarily allowing the cell tower companies to “go wherever they wanted.” He said there are still regulations in place, but the restrictions have been “somewhat relaxed so as to allow for a much-needed service to be offered in the county.”

Jones said he agreed with Smoak, but that his amendment would have provided for that and made way for “checks and balances.” Jones said, again, that his intention with the proposed amendment was “to give property owners a voice. Well, I’m going to say to you if you’re an adjoining property owner, you do not have a voice now.”

Tucker said council was “trying to make sure the county is viable and progressive” and that being a member of council means making difficult decisions and that he had no regrets or apologies towards the way that he voted.

Jones said that he would accept Tucker’s apology if he decided to offer it. Tucker replied that Jones should not hold his breath.

Gardner, who seconded Smoak’s motion, said he did not have a problem with what Jones had suggested.

“But that doesn’t make you right and us wrong,” Gardner said. “I take exception to the way you spieled this, I just do. This is a democracy. Six people voted one way, you voted the other way. That does not make you right and us wrong. I’m sorry, but I just have to say that.”

Jones said he respected Gardner’s opinion.

“Bottom line is I am right on this, this was the best thing for the people and you all were wrong and I will drive that home as long as I’m sitting up here,” he said. “Each and every one of you, all six of you were wrong tonight and you did a part of this community wrong tonight. However, I’m very thrilled that you have cell phone service -- folks out on Lake Wateree -- you would have had it anyway.”

Council, including Jones, voted unanimously to pass the amended ordinance.

At that point, Wise offered anyone in the audience who wanted to leave to do so; more than half the audience departed.

In other news, council:

• unanimously voted to approve an ordinance amending the county’s code of zoning regarding bed and breakfast inns, and

• heard first reading of an ordinance to amend the county’s code of zoning regarding off-street parking requirements which died due to no motion.

In closing comments, Wise said he and Kershaw County School District Superintendant Dr. Frank Morgan have discussed development of recreation facilities including an aquatic center, between the county and school district. He asked that Smoak head up this movement and said it will be discussed in council’s January planning session.

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