Jackson County’s existing review process for towers currently includes a public input session and a vetting process. However, when SkyFi asked the county, which is in “critical need” of high-speed internet services, for 11 new wireless towers and a federal grant, the county’s economic development director, Rich Price, asked the commissioners to circumvent the process.
“The existing review process for towers was a burden at best and prohibitive at worst for start-up wireless internet companies,” Price told the Smoky Mountain News.
County Planner Michael Poston agreed, stating that high-speed internet towers provide a public benefit, especially to rural areas.
Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan told the Smoky Mountain News that “he would be hesitant to make blanket endorsements or render special consideration to any tower given the level of public interest over towers recently.”
He continued: “One of the big campaign topics was about towers on ridge tops. We want to make sure we aren’t having this big Eiffel tower structure that comes off the ridge top that looks like crap.”
Commissioners are on both sides of the fence on what the process should be regarding highly-needed towers, wanting to make sure that the proposed locations make residents happy. Not having public input could be a risky endeavor both politically and economically.
In terms of the SkyFi proposal, commissioners have told Price that “he could include non-committal language in the grant application, signaling support for the project in theory, but not individual towers,” according to the Smoky Mountain News. Commissioners are weighing whether a cell tower vs. an internet tower should have the same approval process. The Smoky Mountain News noted that cell towers must go through the public hearing process and be approved by the board of commissioners. Additionally, there is a $4,000 application fee attached. In SkyFi’s case, there would then be 11 public hearings and 11 permit fees representing each proposed tower, prompting the argument for exemption from this rule.
An 18-month long cell tower ordinance rewrite was recently finished, however the county is looking at another one, Poston told Smoky Mountain News. “We don’t need to look at a total rewrite, but we need to figure out what parts of it worked well and what parts could be improved,” he said. “You are trying to find a way to balance the needs of the community. Here’s a technology that is becoming more and more necessary as a part of people’s lives. We are looking at ways to expand the availability of that service.”