By Sarah Wibell
Rutledge may be in store for a new telecommunication tower, after the Morgan County Planning Commission gave the green light for the project. The commission voted to recommend approval for a conditional use and variance for a telecommunication tower on 89.46 acres at 1771 Centennial Road with the stipulation that tower space for the county is provided.
The application was submitted by Southern Linc – a subsidiary of Southern Company. The maximum height generally allowed in Morgan County is 250 feet for aesthetic purposes. Southern Linc requested 300 feet to maximize signal strength and capacity for potential co-location.
Information presented to the commission noted that co-location on existing towers was deemed not functional based on the distance of the two nearest towers, which are south of Interstate 20, to the proposed area of service and location of the new tower, which is north of I-20 and south of US Highway 278.
Bobby Hildreth, Madison area manager for Georgia Power – a branch of Southern Company, stated, “I cannot overstate how important it is to have coverage in the line of work that we’re in.” He cited safety for Georgia Power workers to be able to report and receive aid in dangerous situations, efforts for power restoration due to storms, and automation driving an increasing need for more data.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the construction of a new tower of 250-feet as the proposed location is on the highest point of the property and within the required setbacks. The commission then assessed and voted on the request for a height variance.
Clay Brogdon, recently retired manager of site acquisition and current independent consultant in zoning and permitting matters for Southern Linc, addressed the commissioners: “In order to fill a gap in our service, we’re proposing to build a 300-foot tall guide tower to maximize coverage capacity and good data speeds in the Rutledge area of Morgan County … at only 250-feet, the coverage, capacity, and improvement of data speeds would be considerably reduced … At 300-feet tall, the new tower will be tall enough to facilitate co-location by other carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile … We have not been made known if there is any opposition to this project.”
Brogdon pointed out that if Southern Linc is able to build a 300-foot tower, the county would be allowed to attach their own antennas for county communication systems. In addition, space on the ground would be provided for their equipment at no charge. “That would save you tens of thousands of dollars of development costs and costs of having to maintain a tower,” Brogdon stated. County antennas would be at the top of the tower while additional carriers’ antennas would be co-located in the 300-250-foot range.
Photo simulations of the tower from the grounds of the proposed site were shared as were projected visuals from several of the nearest residences. Of the seven images, only two revealed a limited view of the tower at the proposed 300-foot height.
Commission Member Connie Booth responded to Brogdon, “I understand you are talking about the fringes, but by the same token, if you’re asking us for a variance, which we don’t like to do, you’re asking us for a variance. I need to see more difference between 250 and 300 feet. Fifty feet is not significant when you’re talking about a tower of 250 or 300 feet in terms of coverage, in terms of liability. So, these two little maps here kind of messed me up, because I just don’t see it.”
The commission considered if approving this variance would lead to a precedent that would be cited in possible future applications and considered if they would need to go as far as a text amendment.
Commission Member John McMahon noted, “It’s only a precedent unless you can draw a difference. One of the things I think the applicant has shown here is what we talked about before – that the 250 was set primarily as an aesthetic issue. And I think the applicant has shown pictures that were taken, assuming that you believe all that, that you really can’t see the extra 50 feet, I guess. Now obviously there is a lot of development coming this way into Rutledge, so that may be an issue in the future, but it’s kind of like ‘Who’s there first?’”
The vote to approve the variance passed. Booth dissented.
The commission also considered a conditional use request for the construction of an open-air pavilion 40’x70’ on 9.29 acres at Springfield Missionary Baptist Church at 2050 Bethany Church Road in Madison. A basketball court and playground are also planned, but conditional use approval is not required for those amenities. Robert Tolbert explained that the congregation would like to have a space to hold outdoor events like Vacation Bible School while being out of the sun. The commission’s only concern was to make sure that no unmarked graves from the cemetery would be disturbed by the construction.
Tolbert said, “Based on what we have now and based on the history of some of the elders in the church, that site and that area up there (where construction is planned, they) have never had any graves located up there.”
The vote to approve the conditional use request passed unanimously.