Medford planners urge change tower hearing rules

A public hearing should not be a requirement prior to erecting public safety communication towers in Medford, the city's Planning Department said in a recommendation to the City Council this week.

In 2011, a 130-foot communication tower on Capital Hill drew criticism from neighbors after the city failed to adequately notify them they were building the tower.

Ultimately, the city moved the tower to another location on the same property because it was built too close to a residence.

The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals found the city violated its own setback rules and noted the city's code wasn't clear enough in identifying public safety communication towers as public utilities.

"We struggled with the idea of making this subject to public hearings," said Jim Huber, Medford's planning director.

Planning staff concluded a communication tower is similar to other utilities authorized by the city that may be approved without a public hearing.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the City Council will review the Planning Department's recommendation. The suggested code changes add language that makes it clearer that city communication towers are considered a public utility.

In a planning document dated Nov. 28, 2012, planning staff wrote, "It would be difficult to require public hearings for public safety communication towers and not for other types of public utility facilities such as electrical towers."

The planners noted that requests for communication towers are made infrequently, but are usually approved because they benefit the entire city.

"Public safety towers are in the public interest, making them difficult to disapprove," the planning document stated.

However, planning staff also suggested it could be possible for the city to require a conditional use permit for a communication tower, which would then trigger a public hearing process.

The city could, as a courtesy to surrounding neighbors, notify them that the city intended to erect a communication tower, Huber said. He said, however, the courtesy notice would not be a requirement.

The city erected the tower in December 2010 to beef up the communication system for police and fire. The tower, which never became operational because of the neighbors' appeal, would have replaced a 60-foot tower to the south on the same 8-acre property, which is owned by the Medford Water Commission.

After neighbors complained, then police Chief Randy Schoen apologized for not alerting residents about the plans for the tower.

The city budgeted $199,680 for the new tower. With the additional cost of moving the structure, the total cost rose to $327,580.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.


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