ELKTON — A majority of the Cecil County Planning Commission recommended approval for plans for a 180-foot-tall cell tower in north Chesapeake City over the pleas from residents to consider how dramatically it would affect the town’s natural beauty.
New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC, doing business for AT&T, has proposed erecting a 180-foot monopole, with a 60-by-60-foot compound at the bottom of the pole, about 200 feet west of Route 213 in north Chesapeake City. That location was chosen to improve wireless services after several complaints of dropped calls along Route 213, according to an application filed with the county.
But a half dozen Chesapeake City residents asked AT&T and the Planning Commission on Monday night to consider moving the cell town further west from Route 213 so it would be less noticeable along the scenic highway. The meeting was heavily attended, with Chesapeake City Mayor Rich Taylor and Town Councilman Frank Vari also in the audience.
Former Town Councilwoman Rebecca Mann said that Route 213 was one of 150 scenic byways, a designated route highlighted for its natural beauty in the nation. Chesapeake City is the northernmost point of the Chesapeake Country Scenic Byway, which extends all the way down the Eastern Shore.
“I don’t know about any of you, but I would probably would not be looking at purchasing a home next to a cellphone tower,” Mann said. “If you could just consider an alternative location, further west on the same property so that it’s not in the direct line of sight from the bridge or right alongside the roadway.”
John Watson, whose property will face the tower, suggested AT&T use another property in town that is already the site for a cell tower, since the proposed location will “stick out like a sore thumb” if it’s not hidden in the nearby tree line.
“Everybody in Chesapeake City is going to be looking at it like a big finger to everybody that passes,” Watson said.
Jim Dykeman agreed with Watson’s suggestion to move it to the other cell tower location. He noted that with the cell tower at 180 feet, it would be about 89 feet above the Chesapeake City Bridge’s deck, so that would be “the only thing drivers would see” while traveling north.
“It’s already an ugly eyesore, but at least we’re not going to create two of them,” Jim Dykeman said.
His wife, Linda Dykeman, stressed that decades ago visionary women turned Chesapeake City from “coal into the diamond of the county it is today” — and the cell tower would not meet the standards of the town’s historic charm.
Andy Jodlbauer, who owns property on both north and south sides of town, said that he’s had to contend with the town’s historic preservation standards for years due to that vision, which can often lead to more cumbersome work.
“I feel the need to stand here tonight and put my objection out there for all the hard work people put in generations before me,” he said. “You could have put 1,000 cell towers then and no one would care … I’m asking that we relocate it so it’s not as obstructive welcoming beacon for the county’s most scenic town.”
Planning Commission members Peter Kirsh, Bill Miners and Don Harmer asked Chris Burns, the attorney representing New Cingular Wireless PCS, several questions about the cell tower’s aesthetics. Kirsh specifically asked “what was special about this spot,” whereas moving it further west into the trees line would not be feasible.
AT&T plans on tucking in the cell tower into a cove on the edge of a tree line to “the best of its ability” so that it can hit the coverage blackspots it’s targeting, Burns said. Another factor in its location is that the land is zoned high-density residential district (RM) zone, which requires a 25-foot buffer around the development.
Two properties that AT&T were considering — one further north along Route 213 and one off Hemphill Street — were ruled out because of its small size and the number of variances needed to make it work, according to the application.
“It’s a misconception in the industry that service providers will come in and just drop the tower. A lot of work goes into site selection of not only this property but where on this property,” Burns said. “Five or 10 feet can make a difference where the tower is located.”
Other factors that set the tower’s location include state-designated critical areas and “a willing landlord” to lease a part of the land, he added. The property is owned by G. Basil LLC, operated by in John Giordano, one of the owners of Schaefer’s Canal House in Chesapeake City.
The tower will be gray but AT&T offers a faux tree model, although Burns personally felt that gray blends better into the scenery.
“Unfortunately, there are some inherent adverse effects of a cell tower,” he said. “You’re going to see it. We find more often that property values go up.”
In response to Burns’ comment, Chesapeake City residents in the audience groaned and scoffed.
Harmer asked if there were specific conditions for the scenic byway, but Burns pointed out that the Planning Commission had previously approved another tower along Route 213. There is some consideration for screening, but AT&T can landscape and screen further if necessary, according to its application.
With these questions answered, the planning commission entertained a motion to approve the cell tower. Harmer asked if the commission would be willing to withdraw the motion, and vote against it “until [AT&T] comes back with some kind of proof that they cannot move the tower further west.”
Harmer suggested AT&T run the numbers for a few hundred feet, and what the cost would be and the signal quality would be, as a effort of good faith for the community. But Planning Commission member Wyatt Wallace said he wasn’t sure what other proof Harmer would need, since AT&T had shown that in their application and presentation.
“They’ve shown they meet the regulations, and that’s what we need to consider. I look at it as we need to follow the law and consider the factors in the plan. Public opinion is a small factor as well,” Wallace said.
The commission voted 4-2 to recommend the cell tower’s approval to the Cecil County Board of Appeals. Harmer and Kirsh cast the dissenting votes.
Afterward, Mayor Taylor said that he had no comment on the proposal, only to note that the process would continue next week with the Board of Appeals meeting.
Meanwhile, Councilman Vari said that the cell tower would certainly affect scenic life in Chesapeake City, and that the town people would continue to advocate for its natural beauty.
Cecil County Council President Bob Meffley, who represents the Chesapeake City area, said he couldn’t believe that the cell tower was recommended for approval.
“I spoke with John [Giordano] and told him he could be a hero and relocate this a little west, but nothing could be done,” Meffley told the Whig. “It’s a shame because that’s a scenic byway, and I would like to see it stay that way.”
The Board of Appeals will make its final ruling at its 7 p.m. Aug. 27 meeting.