Cell tower request prompts review of variance procedure
DANVILLE — The controversy earlier this year over AT&T's plan to build a cell tower just west of the helicopter landing pad at Presence United Samaritans Medical Center didn't stop plans for the tower, but it has resulted in proposed changes to the way the city decides such issues in the future.
The Aqua Illinois property where the 199-foot cell tower will be built was properly zoned for such a tower, but the city's zoning ordinances require a variance to be granted for any tower in the city that will be taller than 150 feet.
The city's zoning board of appeals hears those requests and granted AT&T its variance, but some local residents and some aldermen did not agree with granting a variance to build a tower that tall so close to the helipad. They raised safety concerns, and Alderman Bill Black, Ward 7, first complained about the variance process, because the city council, according to the city's ordinances, has no input in the process and no mechanism to review or appeal the decision.
"It's grossly misnamed, because you can't appeal anything they say," Black said.
In response to safety concerns raised by Black and local residents, city officials sought input from the Illinois Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration and organized a fly-in by local emergency helicopter pilots with a crane in the exact spot of the tower. Afterward, the general consensus of the pilots was that the proposed tower posed no serious threat if it were lit. AT&T agreed to light the tower, and the city finally issued a permit to build the tower.
But since, city administration officials have discussed possible changes to the variance process.
Such variance requests, which are requests to do something not permitted by the city's zoning laws, are heard by the city's zoning board of appeals, and the three members of the panel decide variance requests, such as a resident who wants to build a fence differently than the city's zoning ordinances allow. And the zoning board of appeals is a totally separate body from the city's larger planning and zoning commission, which decides whether to change zoning of a property from residential to business, for example.
Currently, the three members of the zoning board of appeals are current or former city employees — Public Safety Director Larry Thomason, City Clerk Janet Myers and recently-retired Mass Transit Director Dick Brazda.
Black also said he doesn't agree with the panel consisting of only city employees, who are directly responsible to the mayor.
"I don't think that it is representative of the community," he said.
Currently, the city's ordinances state that the members should be city employees, but, Black said, when the AT&T tower's variance was heard, Brazda wasn't technically a city employee, because he had retired. Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said Brazda was still consulting at Danville Mass Transit, helping with the transition to a new director.
Black said he still does not believe it's a good site for the AT&T tower and doesn't understand why others weren't considered instead. But he hopes there are changes made to the variance process.
David Wesner, corporate counsel for the city, said the proposed changes to the variance process include creating a five-member panel that does not include city employees. Instead, two members would be from the city's planning and zoning commission, who are all private citizens, and three others would be private citizens. The other major proposed change, Wesner said, is to make the panel's decision conditional, meaning there would be a 15-day period in which any city resident or alderman could request that the decision be reviewed by the full city council.
Wesner said any decision can be appealed in circuit court, as is the case now. Though a separate body, Wesner said the planning and zoning commission will consider the proposed changes to the variance process at its next meeting at 5:15 p.m. Thursday in the lower level community room at the municipal building, 17 W. Main St., Danville.
Black said the proposed changes sound like a better system, but the members will still be appointed by city administration, and how independently they operate from the city will depend on each individual.
Black said if major revisions are not made, he will propose changes in the ordinances and bring those to the city council for approval.