May 5, 2014

Plan for cellphone tower near Mill Creek Road draws opposition

Charles Oliver

— Brad Russell just finished putting the shingles on a new home he’s building on Mill Creek Road in Rocky Face. He doesn’t plan to move in for several more weeks, but he’s already worried about the view he thought he’d have and the value of his property.

“I bought 35 acres back in September and paid a pretty penny for them,” he said. “But I can tell you for sure I wouldn’t have bought them if I’d known a cellphone tower might come in. And if there had been a tower there, it would not have sold for what I paid for it.”

Verizon is looking at putting a cellphone tower at 1079 Mill Creek Road, which Russell says is next to his property. The tower would be about 3,000 feet from the road, according to company officials. About 40 people came to Whitfield County Administrative Building No. 2 Monday night to hear more about the company’s plans and ask questions about how it might affect them. The meeting was arranged by county Commissioner Lynn Laughter.

Chuck Palmer, an attorney for Verizon, said the company is looking at how it can better serve its customers at The Farm golf course and gated community, the larger community around Mill Creek Road and the area around Dug Gap Mountain Road.

Verizon engineers said the Dalton store gets more complaints about service than any of its other stores in both Alabama and Georgia and most are about the Mill Creek Road area. Maps displayed at the meeting showed that Verizon has no coverage in large parts of the area and weak coverage in some other parts.

In addition to simply increasing coverage, Verizon engineer Perry Wims said the company wants to improve its “fourth generation” services to customers in the area, referring to wireless broadband that allows smartphone users to upload and download data and video.

Palmer said company officials were surprised that so many residents of The Farm came out to oppose the tower when it came before the Dalton-Whitfield Planning Commission earlier this year. The planning commission unanimously recommended against approving a special use permit for the tower. The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on whether to grant that permit when it meets at 6 p.m. on Monday.

Palmer said Verizon has made some changes to its plan as a result of that meeting.

“You are our customers, and we listen to you,” he said.

For one, officials reduced the height of the planned tower to 199 feet from 330 feet.

“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires any tower 200 feet or higher to be lit. We understand that people don’t want to look at those blinking lights,” he said.

Along with the lower tower, the plan currently calls for the company to co-locate on an existing tower owned by another company about 2.2 miles away to cover the entire area.

Verizon engineers looked at placing their tower further south, at the site of the old Westside landfill. That property is owned by the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority.

“The landfill site is technically acceptable. It gives us the coverage we want, but it doesn’t give us the (broadband) speeds we need,” said Wims. “To get those speeds, we need to be closer to the people.”

Wims said that speeds are generally eight times faster near the core of a tower’s coverage area than on the edges.

As with the earlier planning commission meeting, almost all of the people attending the meeting Monday seemed opposed to placing the tower on Mill Creek Road.

“When I sit on my front deck I’ll see it,” said Bob Skidmore, who lives on Mill Creek Road.

Laughter lives at The Farm and represents the area on the commission. She said she asked Verizon officials to hold the meeting so that residents could understand more about their plans.

“I lose coverage all the time on Mill Creek Road, and I have gotten calls from neighbors who want this,” she said. “I don’t understand why they don’t turn out. I guess they aren’t as passionate about this.”

If the Board of Commissioners rejects the special use permit, Palmer and County Attorney Robert Smalley agree that Verizon has the option to appeal the decision in court under the federal Telecommunications Act.

“That is not the route that we want to take,” Palmer said, adding that he can recall only 10 times since 1988 that he has done that.