CORRECTION[s]: The Mebane Enterprise inaccurately referred to TowerCom as another company, that error has been corrected; we also reported the tower does not meet the setback requirement from the road when, in reality, it does not meet the required distance from an adjacent property. Both errors have been corrected.
The Mebane City Council voted to approve a special use permit for a 199-foot 5G telecommunications tower on Monday, July 12. The tower’s purpose is to provide better cell phone service to Mill Creek residents, but the residents of Landi Lane, where the tower will be located, expressed their issues with the placement of the tower in their neighborhood.
TowerCom will be in charge of construction of the tower, which will serve Verizon and Dish mobile customers. The company is leasing the land for the tower from the Nelson family.
The tower does not meet the required fallzone setback distance from the adjacent property to the east, also owned by the Nelson family, as outlined in the Mebane United Development Ordinance (UDO), so a special use permit is required for construction.
The tower will be built on an undeveloped parcel off Landi Lane, on the edge of the majority Black neighborhood north of Mebane, situated between White Level and Mill Creek.
A stream runs through the property, which is located on a critical area of the water supply watershed and is, therefore, considered a conservation area.
Landi Lane is also outside the Mebane city limits, but is in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). During the meeting, Planning Director Cy Stober pointed out the Mebane City Council is the body designated for issuing special use permits for towers not meeting setback requirements.
For TowerCom to get their special use permit request approved, they had to meet the special use criteria. This criteria states the developer had to prove the tower: will not injure surrounding property values, will not present safety or welfare concerns, will be in harmony with the surrounding zoning and will be consistent with the city’s adopted plans, Mebane By Design.
TowerCom’s lawyer, Tom Johnson, said the company had adequately met the four requirements, and went on to explain how.
Johnson called up Michael Berkowitz, an appraiser, who ensured the council that property values aren’t affected one way or the other by the presence of a cell phone tower.
“In conjunction with the above ground infrastructure in the area, it's my conclusion that the tower, as proposed, will not substantially injure the values of adjacent or abutting properties,” Berkowitz said.
Johnson said TowerCom has gotten approval of the site from national, state and local wildlife, environmental, cultural and historical agencies, such as the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the NC State Historic Preservation Office, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA). He said it is, therefore, in harmony with its surroundings.
Additionally, Johnson said the tower fits into Mebane By Design because a cell tower is necessary infrastructure in the modern world, as folks in rural areas are becoming increasingly reliant on cell service as adequate broadband isn’t yet available.
Johnson also touched on the safety aspect of the tower, and said, “It will not materially endanger the public health or safety and, in reality, improves it because it provides that coverage for folks to have access to communication when they need it in the event of an emergency.”
However, the residents who live on or near Landi Lane who were at the meeting pushed back on TowerCom’s claim that all four special use criteria were met, but especially the points regarding the health and safety of those living near the tower due to radiation emanating from it and the effects of the tower on their property values.
In response, Johnson said the towers are deemed safe because the FCC has licensed them, and added that the towers must operate within safe limits under FCC, state and local regulations. State law also states that the city council cannot consider radiation exposure when making their decision on issuing the permit, he added.
So far, there is little scientific information to say whether 5G, or any, cell towers can be linked to disease or illnesses caused by the radiation. The American Cancer Society has no official position on whether or not radiation from cell towers and cell phones is a cause of cancer.
Concerning radiation from 5G cell tower, the American Cancer Society states that, because 5G gives off high wavelengths, it could expose more people to radiation. But, simultaneously, these waves are less likely to be able to penetrate the body, which could nullify any health risks. Still, there is no way to know for sure if the tower’s radiation is harmful until more research is done.
“They said it ain’t a danger to your health, but they ain’t had anybody come tell us that; they said it won’t mess with our property value, but they ain’t had nobody from Alamance County come say it won’t,” Curtis Bryant, of Landi Lane, said. “They said it’ll help everybody in the neighborhood, but we have, I don’t know, 12 people from Landi Lane [against it], some of them couldn’t come. This thing has been going on, they said, since 2016, but we didn’t know anything about it until they put the sign on the road in June. They done all the work and all, and they didn’t come and ask nobody in our neighborhood if we’re having any problems.”
Bryant added that the City of Mebane wouldn’t allow him to place a mobile home on his own property, located near the tower, because it’s on a watershed, and asked why they wouldn’t allow him to do that, on his own property, but will allow TowerCom to put a tower there.
Dr. Shirley Conyard, of Landi Lane, was also concerned about the safety impacts, particularly the radiation and the impact on the local water supply, as well as the impact on property values. “Why bring something that's going to make people sick or devalue property?” Conyard said. “No one wants to buy your property, if it's like that.”
Conyard added her cell phone service works just fine, so the cell tower isn’t intended to serve the residents of Landi Lane.
Lydia Paylor, also of Landi Lane, voiced concern about the safety effects, as well, but also wanted to know if the tower falls and damages residential property, who will pay for it. Paylor also asked if there will be a fence around the tower.
Paylor went on to say that, if the cell tower is intended to improve the service of those living in Mill Creek, it should be constructed closer to Mill Creek. Bryant also suggested building the tower in that area as opposed to off Landi Lane, across from Ray’s Citgo.
Anthony Holt, who lives near Landi Lane off NC-119, and whose main concerns were health related, asked the council, simply: “If it was in your backyard, would you allow it?”
“I don't know the dangers of 5G, I don't think any of you do, but I don't think you would put it 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet, two acres [from] your house,” Holt said.
Dave Whitley and Susan Semonite, both of Mill Creek, were the only residents who spoke in favor of issuing the special use permit for the cell tower.
“I'm glad that folks on Landi Lane have coverage, but I can tell you I'm like the guy on TV, saying 'Can you hear me now?'” Whitley said. “And I do it every day.”
Whitley then spoke directly to residents of Landi Lane, saying he visited the future site of the cell tower recently and didn’t see any houses nearby. He then asked if anyone actually lived near the tower.
Conyard said her home was directly across the street. Additionally, many other homes are less than a quarter mile from where the cell tower will stand.
Tomeka Ward-Satterfield, of Mill Creek, who is a member of the newly-established Mebane Racial Equity Advisory Committee, petitioned the council to use a racial equity tool in making their decision, as the placement of the cell tower will, predominantly, affect Black residents.
“I just encourage you all to not dismiss the racial overtones of this decision and use it as an opportunity to stand on some of the recent decisions and actions that you all have made to be very transparent about race and equity events,” Ward-Satterfield said.
When residents were done speaking, Johnson returned to the podium, and reiterated that the city council cannot take into account the potential health risks of placing the tower on Landi Lane.
“We have standards we have to meet and if we come forth with the evidence for that, then, basically, the council's obligated to issue the special use permit…” Johnson said. “I want to reiterate, as I did earlier, that the health and safety of radiation [exposure] cannot be considered by the council per state law.”
Johnson then answered Paylor’s question, and said insurance will cover any damages in the event of the collapse, but that occurring is very unlikely. He confirmed there would be a fence around the tower site, also.
No other residents had any comments, so the public hearing was then closed for the council to make their decision.
“I think there's a need for the tower, but I'm a little disappointed in the preliminary work done by [TowerCom], not meeting with the neighbors earlier,” Councilmember Tim Bradley said. “But I think that, based on criteria we have to decide on, we really don't have any grounds to turn it down. So I will move to approve the special use request for the 199-foot tall non-stealth wireless communications tower”
Mayor Pro Tem Jill Auditori seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.