From Jeff Rader, District 2 DeKalb County Commissioner
One of the most pervasive signs of our mobile communications society is the proliferation of cell phone towers across the landscape. In DeKalb, the mobile communications revolution occurred after the widespread development of the landscape, so the infill installation of these structures has been perceived as intrusive in many residential neighborhoods. One recent decision and one pending regulation are relevant and noteworthy.
The recent noteworthy decision is the dismissal of a suit against DeKalb County by T-Mobile, a cellular provider. T-Mobile had sued DeKalb seeking a building permit for structures on two DeKalb County School System (DCSS) properties in District 2: Lakeside High School and Margaret Harris Comprehensive School. T Mobile had entered into a contract with DCSS seeking to invoke DCSS’s exemption from zoning regulation to erect the towers in residential districts where they are otherwise prohibited. Encouraged by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners, the DeKalb County Administration declined to recognize the requested permits as exempt from zoning since the cell towers were not educational facilities. T-Mobile sued, but canceled their contract with DCSS after the Federal Courts ruled in favor of DeKalb. T-Mobile also paid DeKalb County court costs incurred in our defense.
The decision is important because it helps limit exemptions to zoning laws intended to protect neighborhoods from incompatible development. Governments (Federal, State, Local and Public Schools) retain this important prerogative, but it should only be exercised to directly advance their public mission, not simply to generate revenue.
The pending decision on the regulation of cell towers is in our new zoning ordinance, which will soon be considered by the Board of Commissioners. After considerable public input and a thorough investigation of relevant federal legislation, the current proposal would allow cellular antennas within or attached to nonresidential structures legally permitted in single-family neighborhoods. These would include houses of worship or other institutions that are legally permitted to be of sufficient height to make a cellular antenna attractive to a carrier. The new proposal would not allow the cell towers that were the object of the T-Mobile controversy.
The proposed policy turns on the inherent incompatibility of a free-standing antenna with a surrounding single family neighborhood, and not on the concerns that some citizens have about the radio waves generated by the antenna. This is important because federal communications regulations prohibit local regulation of cellular antennas based on radio wave concerns. We convened citizen stakeholders interested in this issue recently, who made suggestion on refining the policy for adoption. The new zoning ordinance can be found online at http://planningdekalb.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/finalDraftZoningCodeJan20151.pdf