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Neighbors fight proposed cell tower

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The communications company nTelos hopes to build a 70-foot-tall cell tower beside Elizabeth Memorial United Methodist Church in South Hills.

To blend in with the residential neighborhood, church trustees and members insisted on what's called a "stealth" tower, Pastor Frank Shomo said.

"We were concerned," Shomo said. "We wanted to do something in a discreet way. We have trees over here on the side. We didn't want lights, beacons. We wanted to limit the height. After looking into everything, we felt it was a good plan.

"We proceeded on. We strive to be good neighbors."

But no one from the church asked Vince Dudley or his neighbors on Rambler Road, right beside the proposed tower site. It's right in their back yard, or nearly so.

Dudley figures the tower site is 27 feet from his property line, up a steep hill from his ranch-style home. He'll be able to see it while sitting on his deck. And he's not a bit pleased.

"Why not put it in front of the church? They could make it look like a cross. Why not put it over there?" he said, indicating a cluster of trees behind the church.

He pointed to some more trees at the front of the church parking lot, along Oakwood Road. "They could put it over here, make it look like a pine tree. Look it up on Google. There are all kinds of things you can do."

Dudley said he first heard about the tower project when rumors started circulating through the neighborhood. "The next thing was a notice of a meeting through the city. No one from the church or nTelos approached us."

He went to the city Planning Department to find out more. "I went down and talked to Dan [Vriendt, the planning director]. He gave me a copy of the application."

The two sides are set to square off Thursday morning before the city's zoning board, where nTelos is seeking a conditional use permit for the tower. The Board of Zoning Appeals originally scheduled the hearing last month but postponed it at nTelos' request.

The company needs the tower to reach cell phone customers in some of the lower-lying parts of South Hills, said Mike Minnis, public relations director in the nTelos home office in Waynesboro, Va.

A map attached to the permit application shows coverage gaps along Overbrook and Hickory roads, Forest Road and Abney Circle, and the lower part of Loudon Heights Road.

"As more and more people make the decision to do away with their home telephone and use a mobile telephone, that becomes more and more important," Minnis said. "The area of South Hills has little or no coverage, broadband coverage, so this particular site will deliver that coverage for people who want to add that service."

Minnis said nTelos has installed 11 of 26 towers on its expansion list for West Virginia this year. The zoning board approved another tower just off MacCorkle Avenue near Kanawha City earlier this month.

"In this location we're putting up a stealth-type tower, a monopole, at minimal length -- 70 feet -- that blends in as best as possible with the surrounding area."

Church members insisted on the monopole, or single pole, design over a traditional four-legged truss-like tower, Shomo said.

"People think it's like the ones at Presidential," a cluster of communications towers behind George Washington High School. "It's not. We felt that would be a deal-breaker."

Church trustees weighed the issue at length and congregation members voted on it. "We had a special meeting, Shomo said. "There's a certain requirement for how something like this takes place."

Shomo wouldn't discuss financial arrangements, though the church will apparently get some sort of payment for granting an easement for the tower.

In addition to the tower itself, just off the parking lot to the right of the church, nTelos plans to build a 20- by 30-foot compound enclosed by an 8-foot wooden fence.

A drawing indicates two sizable oak trees will be removed. Dudley figures at least five will come down.

"You take out those tall trees, which they're going to do, it will stick out even worse," he said.

Besides the aesthetics -- "the look of it being there" -- he estimates he'll lose up to $20,000 of property value.

Then there are possible health effects, which he admits are controversial. Radiation standards are tighter in Europe than the U.S., he said. In any case, the BZA by law can't consider health issues.

At least two neighbors have sent form letters to the city, opposing the tower permit. They say the tower would have a negative impact on property values. Dudley says more letters are coming.

He also hired a lawyer, Marty Glasser. "He told [nTelos] what I want: Move it to the other side of the parking area."

At one point, nTelos may have been willing to do that. Lori Brannon of the city's Planning Department said nTelos employees told her recently to postpone the BZA hearing Thursday while they revise their proposal.

That plan apparently fell through. Minnis and Shomo said the hearing will proceed as scheduled.

"We talked about that and we agreed that [original site] was the best location," Shomo said. "We honestly feel, in terms of location, it will be the least obvious.

"From the get-go, one of our concerns was to be a good neighbor. That was our intention. I'm sorry he's upset."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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