Two hearings will be held in upcoming weeks that will impact the future of wireless communications facilities  ( cell towers )  in Salem.

October 28 will see a “Council call up,” an opportunity for city councilors to formally review a decision on the matter of a cell tower proposed by AT&T Mobility Corporation that will be taller, and closer to people, than city code currently allows.  The hearing will be part of the City Council meeting.

AT&T recently asked the city to allow a variance be made to Salem laws about cell tower placement and size.  AT&T requested permission to build a 69-foot+ tall cell tower at 1765 Center Street, and locate it in the US Market parking lot, about 55 feet from where people live and work.

The previous law limits cell towers in Salem to 35-feet high, and requires they have an at least 500-foot setback from the nearest areas zoned for residences or offices.  After the City of Salem looked at the application, it made ten recommendations for AT&T to perform.

On August 20, the most directly impacted neighborhood association, Northeast Neighbors (NEN) objected to the request.  They stated that AT&T had not found a location that was “least intrusive,” as was required, since it hadn’t considered Jason Lee Historical Cemetery and hadn’t worked diligently enough to locate the tower on a Salem Hospital site.  NEN also argued that AT&T hadn’t considered the effect the tower would have on property values and it hadn’t shown that noise would be minimized to the extent feasible, obligations that are also required by city code.

The person assigned to make the City’s decision, Hearings Officer Scott Fewel had to weigh the city’s ten recommendations and NEN’s objections against portions of city law that allows variances to law be made for many reasons.

On September 9, Fewel decided to grant AT&T the variance.   He said he found that AT&T “adequately addressed” what was needed to qualify for a variance as long as it also followed the City’s ten recommendations.
He did not comment on NEN’s objections.

At NEN’s request, Ward 1 City Councilman Chuck Bennett asked for the Council Call Up.  This means a new review of the entire matter will occur on October 28, with Fewel’s decision no longer binding.
“We hope the council will look at the matter all over again,” says NEN’s Nancy McDaniel.  “We don’t know if this will result in the cell tower being rejected, but we just didn’t feel the application was complete and there are some issues we would like to be addressed.

Both sides are expected to express their positions at the October 28th hearing; written public testimony is allowed prior to that date.

The second major hearing concerning cell towers in Salem is scheduled for December 2nd.   This hearing will discuss the way Salem’s laws may be altered to more effectively govern wireless communication facilities.  As a result of this meeting the city may change, among other things, the rules for cell tower dimensions and placement.

Three existing Salem cell towers have already received “variances” from current code on how tall they can be or how near they can be to people.  The potential new structure on State Street, if it is approved, would be the fourth; it would be 81% closer to areas zoned for people (residences and offices) than current law allows.

The codes that govern these matters were last updated in 1996, and both the City’s Planning Division and Planning Commission believe re-writing and reorganization are needed.

On December 2nd a possible new set of codes, titled SRC715, which are available for review on the City of Salem’s website, will be discussed.

The changes would be wide-ranging and if they are enacted, they would allow future cell towers to be built higher and closer to areas where people live and work.