Cellphone towers have become an addition to the landscape in Wilson County in recent years, and more are on the way. With just about every man, woman and teenager in possession of a cellphone, it stands to reason the demand.
Some, however, question just how many towers are too many and to what lengths companies will go to in order to boost cellphone signal strength that much more.
Wilson County Commissioner Jerry McFarland is considered a leader in his district that encompasses Possumtown, a small community a few miles down Coles Ferry Pike from Lebanon that includes a few homes, a convenience store and Friendship Christian School for the past 40 years.
McFarland and others took the issue to the county’s Planning Commission, which oversees rules and regulations regarding building most anything in Wilson County, including cellphone towers.
So when a company wanted to build a cellphone tower about 1,400 feet from the back door of Friendship Christian School about two years ago, he was less than pleased.
“There are other sites and places they can put it,” McFarland said. “I don’t understand why they need to put one here. There are studies that show radio frequencies in a continuous bombardment can cause health problems.”
The Planning Commission decided in 2012 to deny American Tower’s request to build the cellphone tower in Possumtown amid community outcry. American Tower was contracted by AT&T to build the tower.
The commission’s denial prompted American Tower to file a federal lawsuit against the Planning Commission and Wilson County Zoning Board of Appeals in 2012, citing a violation of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.
According to county attorney Mike Jennings, a motion for summary judgment was filed in December 2012, and his response was filed on the county’s behalf in early January 2013.
Nearly a year to the day later, U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp filed his decision Jan. 2, ruling in favor of American Tower.
“It’s been to the federal court in Nashville about the one they wanted to put in Possumtown, and they sent out a summary judgment saying they can put it here,” McFarland said. “It will be up to the Planning Commission next Friday as to whether they want to appeal that decision.”
The Planning Commission will meet Friday at 11 a.m. to discuss the decision and determine whether an appeal would be in its best interests.
Sharp’s decision came in the form of a 27-page memo, but Jennings said it was his one-page order to allow the cellphone tower that made the difference. Jennings said the county has 30 days from when the decision was made to file an appeal.
“We fight these battles with our hands tied behind our backs because the federal government says they can be put anywhere,” Jennings said. “There is a 30-day appeal period. The county can also try to get a stay of the order, but that would require a large bond.”
According to Wilson County Planning Director Tom Brashear, the decision was not surprising.
“I think the judge was pretty clear in what my understanding of the law was, but that’s not to say I agree with it,” Brashear said. “It will be up to the Planning Commission on whether to appeal it.”
And Brashear said there are more cellphone towers pending in Wilson County. Four requests are currently before the Planning Commission set to be taken up at its Friday meeting. Those were carried over from the commission’s December meeting.
“It’s the same set that came up in December,” Brashear said. “There were six originally, but two withdrew.”
Brashear said all four requests came from P. Marshall and Associates, of Roswell, Ga., and all are on behalf of AT&T. Attempts to contact AT&T representatives Friday were unsuccessful.
Brashear said the proposed towers’ locations include one about a mile from Gladeville Elementary School, another just east of the WANT radio station off Trousdale Ferry Pike, another in the back of South Winds Subdivision off Mt. Juliet Road near the boundaries with Rutherford and Davidson counties and the fourth off Guill Road in the southwest portion of Wilson County.
Brashear said between 50-60 cellphone towers are in operation in Wilson County.
According to Jennings, some of the requests are somewhat unusual.
“They want to put one behind Mt. Juliet Public Library, but that is before the Mt. Juliet Planning Commission right now,” Jennings said.
And Jennings said even more laws are stacked against potentially stopping any cellphone towers from being built. He said a state law passed in 2008 prohibits local governments from having cellphone companies justify signal coverage needs.
All the Planning Commission has in its arsenal is a cell tower policy established in 1996. According to the policy, applicants have to provide written evidence they have investigated co-location on an existing tower within one mile of the proposed site.
“New towers shall not be permitted unless the applicant demonstrates to the reasonable satisfaction of the governing authority that no existing tower or structure can accommodate the applicant’s proposed antenna,” the policy said. “Evidence to that effect may consist of any of the following:
• No existing towers or structures are located within the geographic area required to meet the applicant’s engineering requirements.
• Existing towers or structures are not of sufficient height to meet the applicant’s engineering requirements.
• Existing towers or structures do not have sufficient structural strength to support the applicant’s proposed antenna and related equipment.
• The applicant’s proposed antenna would cause electromagnetic interference with the antenna on the existing tower.
• Applicant is unable to work out an acceptable agreement to co-locate.”
The policy also said the proposed tower must comply with all Federal Aviation Administration requirements, cannot be built near an airport, must provide room for maintenance vehicles and any buildings at the tower can only be used to store necessary on-site equipment.