Originally created 11/18/96

Aiken readies for cellular tower issue



AIKEN - Anticipating that cellular phone towers will start springing up throughout Aiken in the near future, city officials are taking actions to prepare for the expected influx.

Aiken Planning Commission members are attempting to draft ordinances that would regulate where the steel towers, which could extend as high as 300 feet, can be placed in the city.

They want to make sure Aiken doesn't run into the problems facing some communities, where residents complain that the towers are unsightly and that they will cause property values to plummet.

The commission planned to discuss the issue last Tuesday but postponed its discussion until January to receive more information.

"Right now, our regulations don't have much control over those towers, and we're trying to prevent them from going up in neighborhoods or the historic district," said Ed Evans, city planning director. He said he doesn't think any towers exist within city limits.

The Rev. Bernett Waitt, a former assistant pastor and administrator of Ashley River Baptist Church in Charleston can understand Mr. Evans' concern.

He says he was unnerved when an "unsightly" 100-foot phone tower popped up last year beside his church without the congregation's input.

"The thing that galled us more so is that they're coming across our property without permission, and we have no recourse about it," the Rev. Waitt said. "The thing that bothered us was the fact that we had no opportunity to voice an opinion about it."

Charleston is one of a number of communities trying to deal with the issue. Ronnie Tyler, chairman of the Charleston County Planning Board, said the board has been dealing with the phone tower issue for the past six years. Sixty towers now exist in the county.

Mr. Tyler said his county handles requests for towers on a case-by-case basis and asks companies to share towers.

He said city or county officials shouldn't allow phone towers to go up without first holding a public hearing.

"You need to give the public an opportunity to have input," said Mr. Tyler, adding they get requests for towers on a regular basis. "They're the ones who are going to use the service.

"The policy that the county operates on is we don't want a bunch of towers popping up ... Now we're seeing competitors actually sharing towers with each other (to cut down)."

Francesca Dea, a spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said 38 million people have cellular phones, and the number is expected to increase. That would also mean more phone towers.

Aiken City Manager Steve Thompson said he foresees phone towers sprouting up locally because of a new Personal Communication Service that is expected to give cellular phone companies a run for their money.

The service is less expensive than cellular phone rates, offers better reception and makes it impossible for people to tap into other people's phone lines, said Jim Haldeman, director of sales for Stealth Network Technologies, Inc., a Charleston communications company.

But since the electromagnetic frequencies used in the service travel shorter distances than those of cellular phones, more towers are required.

"There is no question that cellular phone towers will be a real issue for businesses and residents in Aiken," Mr. Thompson said. "You always have conflict when you put a tall tower in a residential neighborhood."

Mr. Evans says the planning commission is trying to learn from other cities' mistakes in dealing with the increasing numbers of towers.

"Phone towers aren't here, but they definitely will be at some point," Mr. Evans said. "We're trying to be ready for them when they get here."