Katrina Langford (far left) Lynn Goodwin, Phillip Kelly and Virginia Pierce-Kelly stand in front of the cell built behind their neighborhood earlier this year. 
Photo: EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Residents irate as city backs cell tower, citing legal technicality

The city of Stonecrest said a controversial cell tower built behind homes earlier this year can remain standing, using a legal reasoning its neighbors called problematic.

Stonecrest City Attorney Winston Denmark released an opinion late last week saying the tower’s construction in mid-January was legal, despite decades-old documents suggesting the land was only zoned commercial on the condition that a summer day care be built there.

The city approved a permit last year for Vertical Bridge to construct the cell tower on Evans Mill Road. The 199-foot tower sits behind homes in a subdivision, where residents have grown frustrated at the city’s response to it.

The residents were frustrated that is was built without a public hearing being held. Not only is it an eyesore, they said, but they are also worried about the possible health effects of cell towers.

Antennas were being constructed on the cell tower Tuesday, neighbors said. The subdivision in the majority-black neighborhood is quiet and relatively new; it sits next to a church with a children’s playground in the back.


» Was a cell tower illegally built in a South DeKalb neighborhood?

» No more cell towers in Stonecrest, for now

» Cell tower owner hit with code violations unrelated to cell tower

Sharon Vincent, who lives in the subdivision, wrote to city officials that it is a “sad day in the city of Stonecrest” and that the well-being of the residents is being “blatantly disregarded.”

Documents from a 1976 DeKalb Board of Commissioners meeting show the owner of the 16.3-acre property applied to change the land from a residential to commercial zoning in order to build a day care called Raggedy Ann and Andy Child Care Centers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. The rezoning was “approved as conditioned,” the documents stated.

Denmark, however, said in a statement released by the city that it’s impossible to enforce that 43-year-old zoning change today without more specific documentation.

There might have been other things “mentioned during the zoning proceeding,” or the land owner at the time “could have said something verbally or submitted another document that we don’t have,” Denmark wrote, suggesting that it’s impossible to know exactly what the county decided for that tract of land.

The minutes of that 1976 meeting state no one spoke in opposition to the request. The minutes also do not mention any other documents being filed or other conditions being implemented.

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary previously said he would put a stop-work order on the Evans Mill Road cell tower. (Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Phillip Kelly, one of the residents leading the charge against the cell tower, called Denmark’s reasoning into question.

“There’s no wiggle room here,” Kelly said in response to the statement. “You don’t have to assume that (the property owner) said something else, or there’s a document somewhere else, or (that) maybe there’s a piece of paper floating out in the ether that says something different.”

Stonecrest city spokesman Adrion Bell said any conditional zoning can be called into question if a resolution or ordinance does not list the specific conditions.

An executive at Vertical Bridge, the cell tower company that owns the land, declined to comment.

Kelly also questioned whether Denmark, a managing partner at a law firm, holds a conflict of interest in the matter, since part of his firm’s work includes negotiating cell tower leases.

Neighbors say they did not even know plans for the tower were in the works.

“We execute due diligence, devise a financially sound lease structure to ensure that your property and individual rights are fully protected,” the Fincher Denmark LLC website states.

Bell said there is no conflict of interest, since Denmark has never represented Vertical Bridge.

Mayor Jason Lary said at a March 25 City Council meeting that he was going to ask for a stop-work order on the cell tower. He later “found this to be impossible” since the work listed on the permit had been completed, the city’s statement said.

The DeKalb County District Attorney’s office is still investigating the issue.

Kelly said he and his neighbors are considering filing a lawsuit over the tower; they set up a GoFundMe page to raise money.

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