Was a cell tower illegally built in a South DeKalb neighborhood?
Only on AJC: Development
By J.D. Capelouto
March 8, 2019
One minute, life was normal in Clara DeLay’s Stonecrest neighborhood, nestled peacefully among trees and lined by spacious suburban streets.
“The next minute,” she said, “I can see it from my front porch. There’s this monstrosity sitting there.”
DeLay is referring to a bright white, 199-foot cell phone tower that was built in mid-January in the lot across from her home. It came out of nowhere, neighbors said, and looms over nearby subdivisions, a church and a children’s playground.
City and county records suggest the construction of that cell tower off Evans Mill Road may have violated city code because the property’s zoning doesn’t allow for a cell tower. City officials approved the construction, but now the city’s attorney and the county’s district attorney are investigating whether it was legal.
“That cell tower has me really rattled,” DeLay said, speaking earlier this week with several other neighbors who all say they are frustrated by the tower and the process through which it was built.
The 16.3-acre plot of land the tower sits on is zoned for commercial use, but on the condition that a summer daycare be built there, according to digital zoning maps and DeKalb County records. Back in 1976, a man successfully applied to change the land from a residential to commercial area in order to build a daycare called Raggedy Ann and Andy Child Care Centers, the records show.
The daycare came and went, and the property changed hands over the years. But the tract is still only zoned for the summer daycare. Generally, cell towers are built in commercially zoned districts.
When a company named Vertical Bridge applied for a permit last year to build the cell tower, it did not mention the conditional zoning requirement, according to a copy of the application obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Stonecrest City Manager Michael Harris approved the permit, and the tower went up. T-Mobile is set to be one of the carriers who buys antenna space on the tower, according to the application.
Phillip Kelly and Virginia Pierce-Kelly, residents of the subdivision adjacent to the tower, have led the charge against it.
“It’s crazy to me that they would ever allow this to happen,” Kelly said.
Last month they filed complaints alleging criminal violations of the zoning code to the DeKalb District Attorney’s office and the Stonecrest code enforcement office.
“The matter is currently open and under investigation,” DeKalb District Attorney’s office spokeswoman Yvette Jones said Thursday.
Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary said he has instructed the city attorney to look into the cell tower “to make sure it was done right and legal, and then we’ll take action from there.” The report is expected to come back early next week.
“We’re gonna make this right, no matter which way it goes,” Lary said in an interview, adding that it is possible Stonecrest received incomplete zoning files when it incorporated as a city in 2017.
Vertical Bridge, based in Boca Raton, Fla., did not respond to requests for comment. A representative who was named in the building application hung up when an AJC reporter identified himself as a journalist over the phone.
The cell tower is surrounded by a mostly wooded area but is visible from the streets surrounding the Kelly’s subdivision. The neighborhood in the southeastern corner of DeKalb is quiet, relatively new and majority black.
“I never would have bought my house if I knew that they were going to put this commercial-sized tower right across the street from my house,” said Lynn Goodwin, who lives on Evans Mill Road. “Never in a million years would I have done that.”
Goodwin is worried that if she decides to sell her house, the tower could cause the property value to go down.
Katrina Langford planned to retire in her ranch-style home in the subdivision. Now, she's not so sure, since the cell tower is almost directly in her backyard. She and other residents are concerned about the possible health risks associated with cell towers and the radiofrequency waves they emit. The tower is also next to the First Lithonia 7th Day Adventist Church and a private Christian school with an outdoor playground.
“I’m really concerned about it,” Langford said. “The health of my family, my neighbors, my community is more important than having full bars on your cell phone.”
The tower could improve some cell service in the area, which Lary lauded as a positive aspect of the tower. But residents said that’s not worth the disruption.
Stonecrest City Council Member Diane Adoma, who represents the district where the tower is located, said she has been in contact with representatives from T-Mobile. She also claimed there is no major gap in coverage in the area.
“Just because you have a permit doesn’t make it legal and ethically sound,” Adoma said, “and the people do have a say in this.”
Lary said the city attorney is also looking into whether it was legal to construct the tower without a public hearing. The city has told neighbors that because it was a commercial development, a public hearing was not required. Lary said a legal notice about the tower was placed in The Champion newspaper.
“How come we didn’t know about it? How come nobody told us about it?” Pierce-Kelly said. “They did not give us a voice.”
For a cell tower to be built, it must comply with FCC regulations and get approval from the local government through a building permit. The application for the Stonecrest tower stated that it would be “located on the property so as to have minimal, if any visual impact to surrounding properties.” Other cell towers in Stonecrest are built near I-20 or on larger, more commercial streets like Panola or Snapfinger roads.
In 2015, a judge ruled that DeKalb County was justified when it denied permit applications for T-Mobile cell towers to be built at two DeKalb schools. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the city of Roswell after they denied a permit for a T-Mobile cell tower in a residential area.
No matter what happens with the Stonecrest tower, the mayor said he will “make sure in the future that this never happens again.”