Wednesday, June 12, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

ZAP recommends allowing cellphone tower on church property

Data use on cell phones has become so ubiquitous that Verizon Wireless is finding some of its towers overwhelmed by capacity. One area Verizon is unable to adequately serve is in North Austin at the Parmer Lane and MoPac Expressway area.

To help alleviate 126 percent over-capacity of cellular data usage this past April, Vincent Huebinger of Vincent Gerard and Associates, who was representing the applicant, came to the June 4 meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission. He asked for a recommendation to amend a conditional overlay at the United Christian Church property at 3502½ W. Parmer Lane to allow for Verizon to place a telecommunications tower in the parking lot.

“We went through about nine properties in four years,” Huebinger told commissioners, describing Verizon’s search for property on which to locate a new cell tower that would adequately increase coverage in the underserved area. He explained that due to deed restrictions and property owners having deals with other carriers in the area, locating the tower on the church parking lot abutting a single family neighborhood was the “last option.”

However, the property has a conditional overlay that does not permit buildings over 35 feet. The required cell tower would be about 100 feet.

Sherri Sirwaitis with the Planning and Zoning Department said that she worked with the applicant to devise a solution that would amend the conditional overlay on the property only for a specified location on which they would construct a cell tower of no more than 100 feet.

Staff proposed adding the language “except for a Telecommunication Tower use” to the conditional overlay, which states that within the tract, “any structure … shall not exceed two stories or a height greater than 35 feet above ground level.”

Amending the overlay to permit this specific use was of particular concern to the Northwood neighborhood that backs up to the church parking lot where Verizon is proposing to install the new tower.

The neighborhood, which was represented by Matt Sullivan, expressed its general agreement to adding a tower on the property, as long as it has its height limited to 100 feet with an additional two feet for a lightning rod and is designed as a stealth monopole (a pole similar to a flag pole with the antennas for the carrier network fed up the interior of the pole) with a specified location.

Huebinger told the commission that the applicant was amenable to complying with the neighborhood’s conditions and has already been investigating how to camouflage the cell phone tower. The final design for the stealth tower will be determined in conjunction with the neighborhood, which will have a representative consulting on the design.

One particular advantage of locating the cell phone tower on the back of the church property is that it will be screened by a lush tree canopy barrier. However, there is no guarantee that the trees which now exist will remain there permanently. Commissioner David King pointed out that this barrier was critical to maintaining a visual separation for the neighborhood and asked if there was a commitment from Verizon to retain the trees to provide screening.

While Huebinger punted the responsibility for the trees to the church that owns the property, he noted that “the trees in between (the church and the neighborhood) are all protected and heritage so we’re not going to remove those.”

Despite the amenability of some neighbors to the plan, not everyone was in agreement with the proposal.

“I walked the neighborhood two weeks ago … and everyone on Parmer Lane that backs up to it was opposed to it,” said Boyd Henry, who lives in the neighborhood. “The real estate agent who is selling it will benefit, the church will benefit, but other than that I don’t know anyone else that is going to benefit.”

Nevertheless, the commission unanimously recommended approval of the overlay amendment with the agreed-upon conditions brought to the applicant by the neighbors. Nadia Barrera-Ramirez and Eric Goff were absent from the meeting.

Photo by Mike Mozart made available through a Creative Commons license.

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City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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