Nearly three years ago, Charleston was struggling over whether or not to allow a sort-of stealth cell tower just off Interstate 26 as you head onto the Crosstown. The tower was approved after almost two years of debate, becoming the most expensive cell tower in the state of South Carolina. As cell phone use grows in prominence and the demand for improved coverage grows, the city is now hoping to make the stealth towers the standard model.

Since establishing its cell tower ordinance in 1995, the city has had 30 towers constructed. The rules are designed to encourage towers in commercial, business, and industrial zones.

“We’re running out of ideal sites, we’re running in to sites a little bit closer to residential areas,” says city zoning administrator Lee Batchelder.

Regardless of the model, a cell tower looks like a cell tower. There might be slight variations — one may have several antennae running up and down it while others might have one or two standing at the top — but it’s not like you don’t know what you’re looking at. While the stealth model locks the antenna into what looks like a fat flag pole, its solid white frame and … well, lack of a flag, make it an easy mark for some fancy tech-no-logical device.

“It keeps the visual impacts of the antenna to a minimum,” Batchelder says.

What makes the stealth stealth is the way that it hides the computers and wires and such that are typically collected in an unflattering way around the bottom of the tower. In the case of the Charleston stealth tower on Line Street, the stuff is hidden in small brick buildings similar in character to the surrounding buildings.

“They’re very clean,” Batchelder says. “You really don’t notice it nearly as much as you would another type of tower.”

The city’s 12-year-old cell tower ordinance has no preference in the type of tower, but city planners are looking to increase the allowable distance for the old, familiar cell towers, sweetening the deal for providers willing to put the extra money into a stealth model.

Under the proposed changes, the cell towers of yore would have to be located a distance equal to its height from properties zoned for residences or conservation, meaning that a tower 160 feet tall, the maximum height, would have to be 160 feet from such properties. The current zoning, which will be maintained for stealth models and other poles with no visible antennas, wires, or transmitters, allows towers in a distance one-half the height, allowing the same 160-foot-tall tower to be 80 feet away.

The new rules would require the wires and transmitters to be screened by six-foot-tall shrubs and trees when necessary.

The revisions would also prohibit cell towers from being located within 2,500 feet of another tower, encouraging cellular providers to share existing towers whenever possible.

“On behalf of the industry, we find this a tough but fair ordinance,” says Jonathan Yates, a Charleston attorney who represents cell providers.

Andy Brack, a parent at Charleston Montessori School, asked the city’s Planning Commission last week to consider regulations preventing towers from being located near schools. The Montessori School has a tower nearby and it is impacting enrollment and recruiting, he says.

“It’s the first thing you see when you turn the corner,” Brack says. “You see the tower before you see the school.”

Several schools in the area have towers nearby and some have towers on the property, Batchelder says.

The Planning Commission approved the stealth tower changes and, if OK’d by the City Council, there may just be more tall, unobtrusive, ambiguous poles in our future.

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