Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
The Macon County Planning Board was tasked with reviewing the county’s existing Wireless Telecommunications Ordinance in an attempt to ease restrictions involving broadband internet towers.
Last week, the planning board met and considered public comments before voting to recommend the county amend the ordinance to allow administrative review and approval of towers 50 to 125 feet in height used exclusively for broadband internet.
The planning board was charged with reviewing the ordinance to see if any changes could be made or needed to be made to streamline the approval process for broadband internet towers.
According to Macon County Assistant Planner Joe Allen, the board heard from two companies expressing interest in building towers in Macon County who said that the county’s current procedure for approval is tedious and is a deterrent. A review of neighboring county ordinances in both Jackson County as well as Watauga County, showed that depending on tower height, approval of construction was given to county administration rather than having to submit plans and wait months for a public hearing process.
As it stands now, a company wishing to erect a tower for broadband in Macon County would first have to submit an application to the county’s planning department. The request would be placed on the agenda for a meeting, which is only scheduled once a month for a public comment period to be held before final approval. For smaller companies, like the two who spoke to the Macon County Planning Board, they do not have the personnel or resources to submit to that process, only to be denied during the public comment period.
By removing the step of a public comment period, the process can be expedited and become more efficient.
“The recommended changes were sent to the county attorney so he could draft them into the existing ordinance,” said Allen. “Once the county attorney is finished with the changes, the ordinance will go to the county commissioners for review and public hearing before being adopted.”
The proposed changes will apply to broadband specific towers only. Macon County currently does not have any broadband specific towers. According to Allen, the towers are significantly smaller than phone towers and in the five or so years Jackson County has been utilizing them, they have had no issues. The environmental impact as well as the visible recognition of the towers is much less than that of cell phone towers.
By removing some of the barriers associated with applying for new towers, Macon County hopes to make it easier for companies to expand broadband capacity across the county.
Allen said that if approved by the county, the companies who spoke to the planning board earlier this year, which are based out of Jackson and Swain counties, would be able to apply for grants that would allow them to expand to Macon County almost immediately.