SMITHFIELD — The Johnston County Planning Board is considering rule changes that would allow cellphone tower companies to build higher and reach more customers.
In May, representatives of AT&T and American Tower Corp. appeared before the board, saying the county’s 120-foot height limit on cell towers limited the coverage phone companies can provide their customers.
Liz Hill, director of government relations for American Tower, said the height rule, passed in 2007, had stifled cellphone growth in the county. Not one new tower has gone up in the past five years.
Last week, county planning staff elaborated on the situation.
The county has received three requests for towers of 195 feet or more; companies can ask for exemptions to the height limit if they can show a need. But staff members said plans for those towers have all fallen through.
Board member Allan DeLaine said he wondered why the county needs to change the rule if companies can already bypass it by showing a need.
County attorney David Mills said the height rule is so restrictive that few tower builders can get around it. “The criteria we placed on it are very difficult to meet,” he said.
Johnston’s 120-foot rule is more restrictive than in surrounding counties. Harnett’s limit is 199; Nash county allows towers up to 150 feet. Wake has no height limit. Board member Randy Summerlin asked why that was.
Planning director Berry Gray said cellphone companies have two ways to increase coverage: build higher or build more towers. The second option is only cost-efficient in cities, which have more paying customers, he said.
“Generally, they localize their towers a little more so they don’t need them to be as high,” Gray said, explaining why Raleigh has no need to worry about height limits.
But it’s different in rural areas such as Johnston County. Companies typically try to build high so they can reach customers scattered across a wide area. American Tower thinks taller towers could alleviate dead spots in the northern reaches of Johnston County, where reception is often poor.
Gray presented three options to board members. The first would allow 199-foot towers countywide. (For any tower over 199 feet, the Federal Aviation Administration mandates certain lighting and design elements.)
The second option would allow varying tower heights – no more than 199 feet in more-populated, faster-growing parts of the county but up to 300 feet in rural areas.
The third option divides the county into three categories – primary and secondary growth areas and rural conservation areas. Primary growth areas include the Cleveland and Archer Lodge communites. These could have cellphone towers of up to 195 feet.
Secondary growth areas, including areas around most Johnston towns, could have towers up to 250 feet. Rural areas could have 300-foot towers.
The planning board wants to hold community meetings on the proposed rules. DeLaine said he was more inclined toward options two and three, which allow more flexibility.
‘One size doesn’t fit all’
“I like the idea that one size doesn’t fit all because it fits the character of our county,” DeLaine said.
Gray said after the meeting that he’s been getting calls from residents since AT&T and American Tower made their presentation in May. Most of them would like to see more flexibility in tower heights, said.
The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind greater flexibility. In a letter to the county, chamber President Rick Childrey said many member businesses rely on cellphone coverage.
“There are many parts of Johnston County that may have inadequate wireless coverage based on today’s needs,” Childrey wrote.