Community Issues That Matter: More cell towers expected in the area to meet demands for new technology
By Bob Robinson
(Part one of a two-part series)
The number of cell phone towers perched along highways, on hilltops and mountains in East Tennessee, including Carter County, will soon increase as a result of new telecommunications technology designed to deliver more information at faster speeds.
Currently, there are 24 cell phone towers in Carter County, each located on approximately one-quarter of an acre parcel, primarily providing 3G technology. Although none are located inside the city limits of Elizabethton, the cell phone towers, ranging in height from 61 feet to 276 feet, are visible to residents and motorists traveling through the area.
With the advent of the new 4G technology, which allows faster transmission speeds than current 3G networks, it will require putting up more cell towers because 4G uses more bandwidth than 3G and requires more connections over shorter distances, according to Jim Baller of the Baller Herbst Law Group, PC, Washington, D.C.
According to the FCC, third generation (3G) and fourth generation (4G) wireless (“4G”) mobile wireless technologies allow consumers to access a variety of different mobile services and functionalities, such as web browsing, e-mail, access to application (“app”) stores, video conference or chat, mapping and navigation systems, mobile commerce, and the downloading of content.
A range of different mobile devices include built-in 3G or 4G wireless connectivity, including smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and netbook and laptop computers. Several mobile network technologies are generally considered to be 3G or 4G, including EV-DO, WCDMA, HSPA, HSPA+, LTE, and mobile WiMAX.
Do existing zoning laws and regulations in the City of Elizabethton and in Carter County specify the location and number of cell phone towers that can be built? Have any environmental (aesthetics) impact studies been made to assist zoning and planning government officials determine where cell phone towers may be located in Elizabethton and Carter County? Is collocation of different providers on the same tower permitted?
“Ordinarily, zoning requirements ENCOURAGE collocation. Also, federal law imposes shorter deadlines for review of applications for collocation (90 days) than for review of applications for new wireless facility sites (150 days),” Baller said.
In Carter County, since early 2000, regulations have been in place to control placement of cell towers, according to Chris Schuettler, Carter County Planning and Zoning Director. “As for 4G, the tower distance is considerably shorter. This is why we encourage cell companies to collocate on existing towers. Collocations could be placed on any raised structure and this is encouraged where all possible. As far as aesthetics, we would have to look at each site before making a determination. This would be done during the site review phase,” Schuettler said.
In the city of Elizabethton, zoning policies do not restrict the number of cell phone towers, but do regulate their location, according to Jon Hartman, City of Elizabethton Director of Planning and Development. “Currently, cell phone towers are not permitted in all residential and medical-residential zones. In addition, cell phone towers must also meet minimum setback requirements equal to the height of the tower,” Hartman said.
According to Hartman, City of Elizabethton zoning policies do not regulate how or what they can be used for, but do require any towers being replaced by taller towers or extensions to existing towers to submit a site plan and have it approved. “City zoning policies also do not currently regulate the aesthetics of these towers,” Hartman said.
Tax assessors in all 95 counties of Tennessee follow uniform property assessment guidelines for cell phone towers established by the State of Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Division of Property Assessments. Among the guidelines:
— Ownership: Locally assessed tower sites and improvements will be assessed to the owner of the land where located using a special interest identification. A subsequent lease may determine the responsible party for the tax of the site and/or tower improvement.
— Classification: Locally assessed telecommunication towers are real property and classified as commercial property with an assessment level of 40 percent. The classification applies to both the land and improvement.
The 24 cell towers in Carter County, primarily for cellular applications, are located on approximately one-quarter acre parcels. Tax records indicate there are 10 companies who utilize the 24 cell towers to provide wireless telecommunication services throughout the 348 square miles of Carter County. They are Alltel Communications, Inc. (doing business as Tri-Cities); Crown Communication, Inc.; Crown Castle South, LLC; Verizon Wireless Tennessee Partnership; SBA Sites, Inc.; SBA Properties, Inc.; SBA Towers, Inc.; Pinnacle Towers, Inc.; Pegasus Tower Development Company, LLC; and Crown Castle GT Co., LLC.
According to the State of Tennessee Real Estate Appraisal Card, the total appraisal of each cell tower site in Carter County is approximately $89,300. The property assessment on which taxes are paid is 40 percent of the appraisal or approximately $35,720 per tower. The total property assessment for the 24 cell towers in Carter County is approximately $857,270 (24 x$35,720).
With the Carter County tax rate of 2.1528 applied to the total assessment of approximately $857,270, a total of $18,455 in commercial property taxes is paid each year by land owners and/or wireless providers to Carter County government. Transmitters atop each cell phone tower are assessed by the State of Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Division of Property Assessments with proceeds earmarked for Carter County government.
While existing communications technology serves the 13,757 residents of the City of Elizabethton and 57,358 residents in Carter County, the proliferation of new technology continues to expand.
(To be continued Sept. 16: Do radio frequency emissions from cell phone towers pose potential health hazards?)
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