Covington City Council denies cell tower request, despite threat of lawsuit

COVINGTON — Mayor Ronnie Johnston cast the deciding vote Monday to deny a proposal to construct a cell tower on Monticello Street, despite a threatened lawsuit from the company.

The Covington City Council was first presented in the spring with a special-use permit request from TowerCom V LLC to construct a 199-foot cell tower at 1184 Monticello St. Company representatives said the cell tower was needed to help fill in a coverage gap for AT&T and T-Mobile customers. Nearby residents raised concerns about the cell tower at a May 19 hearing, saying that it would not only be an eyesore, but would devalue surrounding properties. A petition with more than 50 signatures of people against the proposed tower was presented to council members.

The City Council was prepared at that meeting to deny the company’s request, but decided to table the issue in order for the city to hire a consultant to conduct a study on cell phone coverage in the area.

Prior to Monday’s regular meeting, council members held a closed meeting to get clarity from the city attorneys about TowerCom’s intentions to sue the city if the permit were denied.

During the open meeting, Ellen Smith, an attorney representing TowerCom, told the council that since the hearing in May, the company enlisted the opinion of an electrical engineer specializing in telecommunications who recommended the special-use permit be granted to improve signal coverage for AT&T and T-Mobile. TowerCom also received the opinion of a valuation service company and a local appraiser, who both stated that the construction of a cell tower would not negatively impact the market value of surrounding properties.

Smith said the company’s efforts reflect “compliance with the zoning ordinance … you wrote the rules. ”

She said TowerCom also looked at an alternative site on city-owned land on Puckett Street, but determined it would not provide the coverage the cell companies needed.

However, TowerCom proposed to construct a smaller tower at a height of 169 feet.

“This would compromise the coverage for AT&T and T-Mobile, but we would rather have compromised coverage than none at all,” Smith said.

Some city residents remained unconvinced. James Milligan, who lives near the site of the proposed cell tower, challenged City Council members to think about the concerns and desires of local taxpayers. He pointed out the attorneys and the representatives of the companies don’t live in Covington — “They’ve probably never been down Highway 36 before,” Milligan said — and said the presence of a cell tower would not affect them, but it would impact city residents.

“They dropped a shell when they said to be prepared for a lawsuit,” he said. “I’ve always been the type who says if there’s going to be a fight, let’s fight.”

After a bit more discussion about the possibility of another site, Councilwoman Janet Goodman made a “reluctant” motion to approve the special-use permit for a 169-foot tower.

“I reluctantly move to go with the recommendation of our attorney … knowing that if we don’t do it, it’s going to be done anyway,” she said.

Council members Goodman, Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin voted in favor of the motion, while members Mike Whatley, Chris Smith and Keith Dalton voted against. The mayor broke the tie, also voting against the motion.

Later in the meeting, City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. advised the council that another vote would be needed. He explained that the motion to approve the tower had failed, but the council needed to take a vote to deny the request.

Whatley moved to deny the request. The motion was again tied and Mayor Johnston cast the deciding vote to deny the request.