All five members of the Belington Planning Commission met Wednesday at City Hall to discuss Verizon's proposed construction of a 190-foot cell tower with 12 panel antennas.
The members voted unanimously to follow the existing city ordinance preventing the construction of the tower. However, the decision is not final until the town's zoning board of appeals and City Council also take up the issue.
The planning commission's discussion of whether or not to support the cell tower was not open to the public. As soon as the commission approved the last meeting's minutes, Mayor Bobby King, planning commission chairperson, called for an executive session by citing W.Va. Code 6-9A of the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act.
Code 6-9A "requires all meetings of public governing bodies to be open to the public." For closed-door sessions, there are 11 exemptions. When King was asked what was the reason for the executive session, he did not cite any of the 11 exemptions.
After the executive session ended and the commission voted to follow the ordinance, members also voted to send their recommendation to the zoning board of appeals.
Alan Coberly, committee chairperson of the zoning board of appeals, was present at the meeting and outlined what would come next in the process.
"Since we know your decision, we'll go ahead and start our deliberations," Coberly said. When planning commission member Marshall Reed asked Coberly if commission members needed to attend the zoning meeting, Coberly responded, "Our meeting is just deliberations, so it's closed to the public." No votes can be taken behind closed doors, so it is unclear when the vote will be taken.
Once the Belington Zoning Board of Appeals makes their decision, the tower issue will return to City Council where it had first entered the permit process.
In March, Don Harris, building permit inspector for the city of Belington, presented the council with a permit for construction of the tower, as well as an 11-foot equipment shelter and internal diesel generator at the base of the structure, all inside a fenced compound. During that meeting, Harris recommended denial of the permit, stating that the limit of structures is less than 80 feet within city limits. Council voted to deny the permit under the guidelines and passed the matter on to the zoning board of appeals committee, which has the authority to approve a variance.
On Aug. 8, the Belington Zoning Board of Appeals met at City Hall to address the proposed cell tower. At the meeting, committee members heard from those in favor of and against the tower.
Jeff Kimble, attorney for Verizon, explained that the company has a federal permit "which requires them to provide a certain level of services to West Virginia." A tower in Belington is necessary for seamless coverage on U.S. Route 250.
Kimble also listed four requirements from the city of Belington ordinance that apply to the proposed cell tower.
The four mandates are: that the proposed location and height must not adversely affect the use of the neighboring property and radio reception; the distance from the tower to the property line must be more than 1/6 of the tower height; the proposed height of the tower must be high enough to provide service; and any transmission equipment to be housed in a residential district is technically necessary for satisfactory and reasonable econonomical transmission.
"It's our position that all four of the elements are really clearly met," Kimble said. "That is all we should need to prove for the variance."
Homeowner Nancy Snider also addressed committee members.
"This is more of an emotional thing for us," Snider said. "We don't doubt the use of our property won't be limited. The tower is not on our property. We are upset at what the tower will do to the value of our property. I can't imagine that there is anyone in this room who would build a decent house with hopes of keeping it that way and want that beside of them. It's just unheard of."
Snider said if someone told them of an application for a cell tower when they bought the land they either did not hear them or they quickly forgot.
"I can't say that someone didn't. But we certainly would not have built the house knowing the cell tower would be built there," Snider said.
Snider said she thought the zoning laws were established for a reason.
"I think this is the reason," Snider said. "I thought they were to protect what I have. Is that not the reason for the laws? To make everyone's property usable and optimal for the property? There is an empty lot for sale down by the red light. If I buy that and asked to put a cell tower in, would that be allowed?"
At that Aug. 8 meeting, Coberly said the committee has 30 days to issue a response.
Coberly also foreshadowed the planning commission's role. "What we decide also includes what we hear from the planning commission," Coberly said. "If things all work out, we will have a written recommendation to council and on file at city hall within 30 days."
At Wednesday's meeting, Coberly updated his estimate by predicting that the zoning board of appeals will have submitted their recommendation by Sept. 9.