EMERALD ISLE — Three months after approving a controversial special-use permit to allow Verizon to build a 40-foot-tall cell tower on property to be leased from the Emerald Isle Mini-Mart, town commissioners Tuesday night rescinded the permit at the cell company’s request, pending a court review.
The action came in a unanimous vote during the board’s monthly session in the meeting room beside the police department on the north side of Highway 58.
Residents in the area of the tower location packed town hall April 9 to oppose the permit, which allowed the structure to be built on 1,584 square feet of space at 3301 Highway 58.
The residents, during a quasi-judicial hearing, claimed it would block their views and reduce property values and call and data service is adequate so the tower isn’t needed.
The News-Times was unable to attend the Tuesday board meeting because of a scheduling conflict, but Emerald Isle Planning Director Josh Edmondson said Wednesday Verizon’s request to terminate the special-use permit was not entirely of its own volition.
Mr. Edmondson said several of the property owners who opposed the permit and the tower during the quasi-judicial special-use hearing in April filed a writ of certiorari, asking for review in Carteret County Superior Court.
The court, Mr. Edmondson said, agreed to hear the case and asked for additional information from the town and Verizon.
“When Verizon received the appeal, they decided not to go through the process,” Mr. Edmondson said.
The town had not issued a building permit and “had a certain period of time” in which to act to revoke the permit, Mr. Edmondson said.
“We talked to our town attorney, Richard Stanley, and he advised us to (formally) revoke the permit and have them (Verizon) sign it,” he said.
That’s what the board did Tuesday. By doing so, Mr. Edmondson said, “Commissioners are preventing them (Verizon) from coming back and approaching the town to move forward with the project at a later date without first going through the special-use application process again.”
Verizon verbally agreed to the permit withdrawal, Mr. Edmondson said, but town officials were concerned that without a formal vote by the commission, “in five or six months they might have said they had changed their mind.”
Cellco Partnership of Delaware, a subsidiary of Verizon, signed the permit withdrawal agreement, according to a town document.
Any future request for a special-use permit for the site must stand on its own, with new quasi-judicial testimony by the company, residents and town officials and new findings of fact.
During the nearly three-hour hearing in April, Interim Town Manager Randy Martin said under state and federal law and the town’s Unified Development Ordinance the town has to allow cell towers, but could limit them to either public property or property zoned for business. The mini-mart site is zoned for business.
Jim LaPann, a zoning specialist with Faulk & Foster, a Louisiana-based wireless development consulting firm working for Verizon, testified in April that because of the town’s zoning requirements, there is only a small area available for a tower. He said the tower is needed to assure Verizon’s service met its standards and satisfied the increasing demand for wireless service, especially the rapidly growing need for data.
“We tried all the government-owned properties,” but none of them worked, he said at the time.
In its application for the permit, Verizon stated, “The main purpose of the proposed site, Emerald Drive, is to offload two (existing) neighboring sites. The Verizon Wireless Radio Frequency engineers have determined that these two neighboring sites cannot provide satisfactory service to customers … and addition of the Emerald Drive (Highway 58) site is needed.
“The town of Emerald Isle is very densely populated. There is a tremendous loading of the transmission … The proposed tower would take some of the demand from the area and handle it, rather than it all being covered by the existing towers. This is called ‘offloading.’”
Some residents at the hearing said cell phone service in the area was indeed sometimes bad, with calls dropped and data unavailable, especially during times of peak demand, such as the Fourth of July week, when the town’s population swells to about 40,000, up from the year-round level of about 4,000.
Mr. LaPann said during the hearing that demands would increase as Verizon and other wireless firms move into the next generation – so-called “5G” – of cellular communications, which will make faster downloads of data available.
Wednesday, Mr. Edmondson said he doesn’t think Verizon is likely to give up on improving its capabilities in Emerald Isle.
He pointed to 2017 state legislation that allows companies to use public rights-of-way and utility poles for small cell communication infrastructure. It authorizes cities to assess fees for “occupation” of those spaces, but makes it difficult for them to prohibit them from being used.
It also authorizes the North Carolina Department of Transportation to issue permits to wireless providers for placing wireless antennas on state rights-of-way, such as along Highway 58. Generally, the infrastructure cannot exceed utility pole heights by more than 10 feet.
The legislation, approved as House Bill 310, was intended to streamline the process for deployment of 5G wireless equipment.
“I haven’t been told, but I doubt they (Verizon) are abandoning the effort to improve service in Emerald Isle,” Mr. Edmondson said. “What they might do, I don’t know.”
Mr. Edmondson said he was not yet clear on what process Verizon might have to go through to deploy new infrastructure under H.B. 301.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.