DANVILLE — The CEO of Provena hospitals told aldermen Tuesday night that he has concerns with AT&T Wireless' plan to build a cellular tower near the flight path for Provena United Samaritan Medical Center's emergency helicopter landing pad.
CEO Mike Brown said that for a majority of the helicopter flights to and from the hospital's landing pad, the proposed 199-foot tower likely would not pose a problem, but it could for a smaller portion of flights, and that's what concerns him.
Brown said after Tuesday night's Danville City Council meeting that "the bottom line is (the tower) would be better off somewhere else."
Some aldermen agree with Brown and expressed their frustration during the meeting that the city council has no say. Some aldermen discussed writing and voting on a resolution stating that the city council does not support the cell tower at that location.
Alderman Bill Black, who has spoken publicly against this plan at previous meetings, requested that the AT&T tower be added to the agenda as a discussion item, and during that discussion, Black reiterated that he believes this is a safety risk to the emergency helicopters.
AT&T plans to build the tower on Aqua Illinois property northwest of the hospital, and does not intend to put a light on top. Regulations require towers 200 feet or taller to be lighted. The city sought input from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Illinois Department of Transportation. Both signed off on the tower, although IDOT did recommend in its letter to the city that the tower be lighted.
Black and Brown told aldermen that the FAA really is not concerned with the tower, because it's not in the agency's realm, which is public airports. Brown said the FAA sees this as a private landing pad. Black and Brown also both made comments to aldermen that IDOT does not have the authority to stop AT&T from building the tower but does have the authority to decertify the hospital's landing pad if safety issues arise in the future. And Brown said the hospital has no alternative spot for a landing pad, and it's critical that it have one. He said more than 70 flights have been in and out of the hospital in the last two months.
The proposed site of the cell tower, which AT&T would lease from Aqua, is also the site of Aqua's water-treatment plant along the North Fork River. The property is at a lower elevation, 560 feet above sea level, than the hospital and landing pad, which are at 600 feet, and is surrounded to the north and west by trees. The top of the 199-foot tower would be at an elevation of 759 feet once built, and the helicopter landing pad is at 600 feet.
Brown said 95 percent of the flights — which come from Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana or Lafayette, Ind. — follow flight paths to the northwest or the southwest, and the tower would be 130 feet south of the northwest path. He said the tower would not be an issue for that 95 percent of flights. But the other 5 percent that must deviate from those paths for various reasons — bad weather or wind, for example — could be affected. Brown said he has been in contact with pilots of the emergency flights, and they've told him they can navigate it, if the tower is lighted.
The property is zoned agricultural, which is appropriate for a cell tower, so AT&T could build a tower 150 feet or lower on the Aqua property without any approval from the city. But because of the lower elevation, AT&T needs the tower to be 199 feet to be beneficial. The city's regulations don't allow towers above 150 feet unless they seek a variance from the zoning board of appeals. There are several other towers in the city above the 150-foot height. Variance requests are decided by the zoning board of appeals, a three-member panel of city officials, but do not go through the city council.
Black said Tuesday night that in some cities, like Springfield, that's not the case.
City zoning officials notified surrounding property owners of AT&T's variance request and hearing in July, including the owners of the hospital property, and the zoning board of appeals approved the variance.
Aldermen asked what recourse there is to the zoning board of appeals decision, and city officials said the decision is final. But city officials have still not issued AT&T a building permit for the tower since the variance hearing.
Chris Milliken, planning and zoning manager for the city, said after Tuesday night's meeting that the city cannot refuse to issue the building permit to AT&T or it would risk legal action.