NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Easy money for county government? Or an arrangement that pits the county against the private sector?
New Hanover County commissioners are considering a proposal to lease some of the 1,500 acres of land the county owns for the construction of cellular towers. In return, the county would receive an estimated $5.6 million in the first 10 years of the agreement alone.
Milestone Communications proposed the idea to the county. The company has partnered with dozens of school, government, and utility landowners along the East Coast, helping them generate millions of dollars annually for their budgets.
Commissioner Woody White is undecided about the proposal, which the commissioners will consider again later this month.
"I think generally at the beginning all of us thought, 'Gosh that's a great revenue stream, might offset taxes and things that we have to pay for, let's look at it a little closer'," White explained of his initial reaction. "But as we started peeling back the layers of the onion a little bit, we thought wait a minute, what are we giving up, and are we competing with the private sector. If we are, we need to take a long and hard look at if it's the right thing to do."
White said he was concerned that this arrangement might be unfair to private landowners who might otherwise lease their land to the cellular companies. He's also not convinced that the county is in dire need of better cellular coverage to justify the lease of public land, or that it would be in keeping with the core functions of county government.
Commission Chair Beth Dawson is cautiously optimistic about the proposal, but wants to wait until the commissioners discuss it again before she makes a final decision. She said her main concern was the county being encumbered from using the land it leased for other purposes, like future parks or schools.
Dawson said she's been told the towers would be placed in a way that the land could still be used, or the towers could even be moved if it became necessary.
New Hanover County's Chief Information Officer Leslie Chaney said there would not be any "speculative tower construction" under the proposal from Milestone. Instead, Milestone would market potential cellular tower locations to wireless carriers, and a tower would only be built there was a need for one due to gaps in coverage or lack of capacity in a particular area.
"If a site was selected as a potential location for a tower, the county would work with Milestone to make sure that the request was in keeping with the aesthetic of the location and would not interfere with the continued use of the site," Chaney explained. "Milestone would still be required to obtain all of the necessary zoning approvals and permits required to build the tower."
Milestone would also be required to pay for the towers' construction.