Fort Smith Board overturns Planning Commission and blocks cell tower permit

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,624 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Sept. 5) approved the appeal of a conditional use application to build a more than 15-story commercial communication (cell) tower near the Arkansas River. The board action blocks construction of the new tower.

On Aug. 8, the Fort Smith Planning Commission held a public hearing to consider a conditional use application for a commercial communication tower at 3915 Newlon Road from Tillman Infrastructure and AT&T. The property, about 14.39 acres, is located on the north side of Newlon Road west of Fort Lane and east of Williams Lane. The tower would be north and west of the Gerber Foods plant and the OK Foods corporate office.

Conditional use approval would have allowed the construction of a 158-foot tall commercial communication tower in a residential area, said Maggie Rice, Fort Smith director of development services. Though no surrounding property owners attended the neighborhood meeting set regarding the conditional use request, some did attend Tuesday’s meeting to oppose the tower. Some noted they were out of town or ill at the time of neighborhood meeting. Also, the planning department received numerous emails, phone calls and a petition in opposition to the tower, Rice said.

At the Planning Commission meeting, Stephen Smith, attorney for SBA Communications, spoke in opposition citing concern with the location of the tower, possible co-location, and congestion of coverage between the proposed tower and SBA’s tower. The Planning Commission approved the conditional use on Aug. 8 but Smith appealed the approval of the commercial communication tower.

AT&T said they needed the new tower to provide better 5G service. Dustin Christal, an RAN engineer for AT&T, said the new tower was not necessarily needed for coverage but for capacity. That area of Fort Smith is covered by a tower across the river in Van Buren. By adding another tower, the capacity of the Van Buren tower would be better, and the combined towers would allow for better area service.

Smith said the new tower would only be a half mile from an SBA tower AT&T had already been negotiating with because it has the capability of hosting AT&T’s 5G requirements. The new tower is simply not needed because co-location can work for AT&T and SBA, Smith said. He said in most municipalities, co-location is recommended and in some instances mandated.

“It goes to the heart of the issue that there needs to be not only the communication between these parties about this, it’s got to be a maximum effort between both parties in order to benefit the surrounding residents,” Smith said.

Christal said the SBA tower would not fit AT&T’s needs.

After hearing from residents in the area who said none of them have cellphone coverage issues in the area and they didn’t want to look at 150-foot cell phone tower instead of the view they have, the board voted five to one to approve the appeal and deny the conditional use of the land that would have allowed the tower to be constructed. Directors Christina Catsavis, George Catsavis, André Good, Neal Martin and Lavon Morton voted to block the tower permit. Director Jarred Rego voted for the tower to be built. Director Kevin Settle abstained from the vote because a family member works for AT&T.