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Planning: Cell tower in park wins approval over neighbors' objections

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A “stealth” cell tower planned for Litchfield will help AT&T build its infrastructure as more people give up land-line phones and want reliable cellphone service in their homes, according to the project’s designer.

But residents who live down the street from the proposed site in Georgetown County’s new Stables Park say they are concerned that the 153-foot-tall tower will hurt property values and slow growth in their neighborhood.

The county Planning Commission approved the tower site last week in a 6-1 vote.

American Tower and AT&T Mobility designed the tower to look like a flagpole. It will be topped by a 3-foot-diameter gold ball. Inside the tower will be space for five antennas.

The tower will sit in the southeast corner of the 116-acre park, where work is due to start soon on tennis courts, soccer fields and pedestrian paths. American Tower plans to lease the site from the county.

The site is along the dirt portion of Parkersville Road, 97 feet from the nearest home, but because the park property is heavily wooded, the tower won’t be visible from nearby lots, said Jason Groseclose of American Tower.

“We’re in the forest. There are going to be very few long-range vistas,” he said.

Taller towers, like those next to the county’s recycling center on Grate Road, which are over 300 feet high, establish service. Shorter towers, like the one at the park, enhance coverage, Groseclose said.

The goal is to improve signal strength, said Gerald Jones, an engineer with AT&T. “We don’t want to build a tall tower to meet this need,” he said.

But tall is in the eye of the beholder.

“My fear is that a 150-foot-tall tower put at the end of this road will dash any chance of future development,” said Anne Reiss Zavacky, one of seven nearby residents who showed up for a public hearing on the project. The county sent notices to 209 property owners within 200 feet of the park site.

Robert Byrd, who lives at the Pawleys Pavilion condos east of the park, told the commission new power poles went up on one side of the neighborhood this year. “Now we’re going to have to look at a tower in our backyard,” he said.

Hartmut Fege, who also lives nearby, asked the commission to consider another location in the park. “It’s not so much the tower, it’s the location of the tower,” he said. “Why not put it in the middle of the park, next to the soccer fields or the tennis courts?”

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said the site was chosen by the firm that designed the park. “There’s really no other place in the park the county feels like this will fit,” he said.

Neighbors said they are also concerned about the health impacts from the radio signals. “The question about health risks associated with cellphone towers is still in debate,” Zavacky told the commission.

But planning staff pointed out that federal law bars local government from basing decisions on cell towers based on the effects of their electronic emissions if they comply with federal standards.

“If you’re not interested in the health of the citizens of Georgetown County,” Zavacky said as she left the podium.

“We wouldn’t be sitting here if we weren’t interested in the health of people in the county,” commission chairman Brian Henry said.

Jonathan Yates, attorney for American Tower, said the signal from the new tower will be less than 1 percent of the allowed electronic emissions. The American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization have found no harmful effects from cellphone signals, he said.

“This is an issue we look at very closely,” Yates said.

He also said that “we’re not seeing property devaluation” from cell towers. Younger buyers are looking for property where they get the kind of phone and data service this tower is meant to provide, he said.

“With stealth, all you get is the pole,” Yates said. “We can’t bring our infrastructure where no one can see it no how.”

There are two “stealth” towers on Waccamaw Neck: a 140-foot tower off Blackgum Road in Litchfield and a 120-foot tower behind the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Station on Business 17.

“You don’t see it every day. It becomes part of your peripheral vision,” Yates said.

Commission member Glenda Shoulette said she looked at a flagpole-style tower at Sullivans Island. “It is very, very white,” she said. “It’s in your face.”

“It looks fantastic,” Groseclose said.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Shoulette said. “If that could be toned down a little bit.”

“We can paint it any color you want it,” Groseclose said.

Henry said the goal may be to improve service inside buildings, but he frequently hears complaints about poor service in the Litchfield area.

Commission Member Marvin Neal cast the only vote against the tower. “My concern is that the community has a concern,” he said.

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