A T-Mobile cellphone tower in Lower Towamensing Township is one step closer to reality.
By a 3-0 vote, the township's zoning hearing board approved a special exception and three variances Tuesday night that would allow for construction of a 180-foot tower at 2970 Hahns Dairy Road on property owned by Leonard and Grace Borger.
The land is in the township's rural conservation zone, which permits cell towers by special exception.
The approved variances dealt with landscaping, setback and tower painting requirements.
Land development plans must still go before township supervisors before the project could begin.
Three representatives from T-Mobile Northeast LLC testified during the two-hour hearing, stating that the proposed tower would provide reception to many currently unserved areas of the township including Blue Mountain Ski Area.
"Around 10 to 15 years ago, we had cellphone carriers coming in here looking to put up towers like it was the Wild West," said James Ord, chairman of the zoning hearing board. "We weren't as receptive to them back then, and now we have probably one of the worst townships in Carbon County when it comes to cellphone reception."
The financial terms of the lease option between the Borgers and T-Mobile were redacted from the documents submitted to the board on Tuesday.
Lower Towamensing's zoning ordinance requires a setback distance to all surrounding property lines equal to the height of the tower. T-Mobile met the requirement on all but the east side, where the plan calls for a 100-foot setback.
Deb Baker, a site acquisition consultant representing T-Mobile, said the Borger property is enrolled in Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a federal program that financially rewards farmers for leaving their fields fallow.
"If we would have moved the tower 100 feet west, we would have taken a portion of that field out of the program and we didn't want to do that," Baker said. "The position of the tower on the property is very well suited for T-Mobile's needs."
The ordinance also requires an evergreen screening of at least 6 feet surrounding the site. Baker said the tower would be located in a wooded area and to meet the ordinance requirements, T-Mobile would have had to take down existing trees to plant smaller ones in their place.
"Given the distance away from neighboring homes and the tower being located in an already wooded area, we felt that would be silly," she added.
Baker also used the surrounding trees to justify not painting the bottom of the tower green, as required by the zoning ordinance.
"You won't see the bottom of the tower anyway," she explained. "The top will be a silver and gray color that will match the sky, cloudy or white. The green bottom would be a good idea if you had a mountain backdrop, for example, but we're on top of a hill."
Ord questioned why the tower wasn't planned for a spot on a higher mountain, where transmission wouldn't be blocked by Stoney Ridge.
"You could have had a view down more valleys to Little Gap Road and more directly at the ski area," Ord said.
Putting towers too high can overshadow some of the valley areas," noted Mike Grab, an attorney representing T-Mobile.
Zoning board member Keith George expressed concern over how the tower might impact adjoining property owners who want to develop their land down the line.
"The board has to look at the situation as it is right now," Grab responded.
Two neighboring property owners spoke Tuesday, one in favor of the tower and another, Joann Banas, questioning whether emissions from the radio frequency antennas would affect medical devices such as pacemakers or hearing aids.
She was told the tower would not affect medical devices.
Joann's sister Arline Banas said cellphone reception has been almost non-existent at her Hahns Dairy Road home.
"I can't even get reception out on my deck," she added. "I don't think we need to worry about what is going to happen 50 years from now. We won't even need cell towers in 50 years because there will be some new way of transmitting."
The T-Mobile tower could be used by other carriers.