Sprint cell phone users will soon get better service, but it won’t come without a price for some residents.
Despite opposition from neighbors, the Columbia Board of Adjustment unanimously approved two variances Tuesday to build a 95-foot cell phone tower and an above-ground equipment shed in the Highlands community.
Residents said they feel this will devalue their homes and businesses and fail to meet the visual standards the community has tried to establish.
“There is no doubt that the tower is visual pollution,” Tom O’Neal, a resident, said. “(Sprint and Highland Properties) said this design is the ‘least obtrusive,’ but the fact of the matter is, it’s still obtrusive.”
Sprint said the pole would be painted a matte gray in an effort to make it blend in with the rest of the neighborhood.
Other residents also voiced their concerns about the manner in which they were notified.
“We were given barely a week’s notice,” said Susan Clark, Highlands Homes Association manager. “The community did not have the chance to do research on the issue.”
The board said a public notice had been posted on a real-estate sign at the property, but neighbors said it could not easily be seen from the street.
Julie Clark-Walters, a Highlands resident, brought a picture of the sign to the hearing to show board members the notice was too small.
Board member Rex Campbell agreed with Clark-Walters.
“The signs are grossly inadequate,” he said. “We need to look into improving the method of posting public notices.”
Resident Michael Szewczyk said he thought the way Sprint and Highlands Properties handled the matter was suspicious.
“The only thing stealth about (the tower) is the way it’s going down,” Szewczyk said, a stab at the company’s claim of the “least-obtrusive” flagpole design.
The pole will be 60 feet higher than city law allows and will be able to carry two other cell phone providers. It also complies with all FCC regulations and will not have any harmful effects on personal health or other communication networks in the area, said Erin Lane, Sprint site acquisition project manager.
The tower is vital for Sprint to compete in the local market, she said.
Not only does coverage need to be improved in the Highlands area, but the tower can only be built in this location, said Sprint engineer James Woolfolk.
“We looked for three years, but this was the only suitable site we could find,” said Steve Ward, the owner of Ward Development Services, LLC, a consulting firm that provides information on possible tower locations to cell phone companies.
Residents said there are several other sites in the area the company could use, but Sprint said no other location would provide the coverage it needs.
At the meeting, a Verizon Wireless representative said Verizon would “co-locate” at the tower.
With Tuesday’s approval from the board, Sprint has its next move planned out. The company will apply for a building permit in two to four weeks, said Sprint spokesman Miles McMillin.
“I expect Sprint to be ready to build in the next two months,” he said.
Highlands residents, who can appeal the Board of Adjustment’s decision in circuit court, don’t think their fight is over.
“We’re looking at all our options,” Clark said.