Knoxville neighborhood fights against cell tower

A Knoxville neighborhood is fighting a cell tower in North Knoxville. July 31, 2015

(WBIR- NORTH KNOXVILLE) A North Knoxville neighborhood is fighting to keep a cell tower out of their community.

The Top of the Ridge neighborhood near Martha Berry Drive and Ridgecrest Drive has posted signs displaying the slogan "Protect Knox Neighborhoods."

Branch Towers has submitted an application to the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) for a 150-foot monopole telecommunication tower off the northwest side of Ridgecrest Drive and the east side of Hollyhock Lane. This tower will service T-Mobile.

Residents of the area claim there are problems with Branch Towers' application and its facilities plan, and say it does not meet guidelines set forth by the MPC.

Members of the neighborhood also say the tower would obstruct scenic views, lower property values, and create a floodplain when trees are removed.

"Big business is infringing on the will of the people, and the will of the people out here. They do not want this cell tower," said Phyllis Severance, a resident of Martha Berry Drive.

Mary Miller, an attorney for Branch Towers, said T-Mobile has a gap in coverage in that area, and they have proven the need for the cell tower.

"They looked at several sites," Miller said. "This was one of the best sites. It's well buffered. It's a large site. It meets all the requirements of the zoning ordinance."

Miller said Branch Towers looked at other locations first for co-location with other cell providers, but none were viable options. She said the company then analyzed seven alternative sites, but those would not work either.

The land the proposed tower would be built on is owned by a private property owner, and Branch Towers would lease the property.

"If a company comes in - regardless of the wishes of the neighborhood - and meets all of those requirements, it almost feels futile for us as residents because it doesn't matter what we say or what we want. It's coming," said Bob Hillhouse, a resident of Martha Berry Drive.

Tom Brechko, principal planner for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, said the MPC has received 83 applications for commercial telecommunications towers since 2000. Sixty-eight of those have been approved with six denials, seven withdrawals of applications, and two current postponements.

Most applications have to meet local ordinance guidelines to garner MPC approval. Under federal law, the MPC is not allowed to discriminate against cell carriers moving into the area if they meet these guidelines.

At an MPC workshop Thursday night, Larry Perry, a consultant for the MPC, explained that most cell carriers need a tower spaced about every quarter of a mile to a mile in order to provide full coverage to their customers.

The Knoxville market currently supports seven of 13 cell carriers, and many of those are looking to expand coverage in this area.

Brechko said some of the local guidelines that are in place today have not been updated since 2002 when cell phones were mostly used for voice calls and not data usage via the Internet or apps.

"It's a major change in the number of people that don't have a land line, so when they're home, they're using their cell phone, and so the demand is there for, you know, a number of carriers to provide service to them," he said.

There may be more demand for cell towers in residential areas, Brechko said, because more people in each household are using their cell phones at home.

But for residents in North Knoxville, Hillhouse said he is not optimistic about winning their fight this time.

But he wants other Knoxville neighborhoods to be aware of the cell towers moving in to the area.

"This is more important than just Top of the Ridge or Martha Berry Drive," Hillhouse said. "This whole region is filled with ridges, and in order for 4G and LTE technology to penetrate those areas, you have to have more towers."


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