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County debates next step for 911 tower

Urbana board rejects request, cites too many variances and too little information.

Some local officials are questioning a recent decision by Urbana’s Board of Zoning Appeals to reject a proposed 911 tower that would be placed on the city municipal building, saying the decision could kill the project.

But at least one member of the zoning board countered that the proposal, while potentially beneficial, was poorly presented and contained too few details. Last week, members of the BZA voted against waiving five variances that would have been necessary to allow a 70-foot tall wireless telecommunications tower to be placed on the city’s municipal building. Those variances included the proximity of the tower to residences and roads, the height of the tower above the roof, and the design of the tower.

If it had been approved, the tower would have allowed the creation of a backup 911 center in the municipal building, said Craig Evans, director of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency. Currently, the city and county use a joint 911 center at the county office complex on U.S. 68 to handle emergency calls and dispatch first responders. But if an emergency such as a tornado or fire would damage that center, the county does not have a backup in place and would likely have to route emergency calls through another county, risking dropped calls or delays, Evans said.

“Not a single person showed up to object to putting it on the building,” Evans said of the tower.

Evans said the project had been developed with the help of local first responders, and Urbana’s administration had signed off on the agreement. It would be paid for with an $18,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But moving the project to another site would make it unaffordable.

“They’re effectively killing it if we need to move it,” Evans said.

But some members of the BZA argued they did not have enough information.

“I think we were all looking for reasons to grant the variances,” said Tom Gates, a member of the BZA. “I just think they took our approval for granted and didn’t do their due diligence.”

Gates said the BZA has never allowed that many variances for a project in the past. But he also said proposed drawings of how the tower might look were inaccurate, and some engineering details were missing.

Other BZA members raised other issues with the proposal as well. There were concerns that if the project proved more costly than expected, the city may not have enough in the budget to pick up the rest, said Marty Hess, a member of the BZA. He said some questions about the cost of the project were not adequately answered.

“We want the best bang for our buck because bucks are hard to come by,” Hess said.

County and city officials have tried to devise a plan for a backup tower for two years, said Mark Keller, chief of the Urbana Fire Division. He pointed out that a full engineering study was not completed only because it was determined it would be too costly to pay for a full study, which still could have been turned down by the BZA.

Keller said the backup tower is needed because in recent years, there has been a bomb threat and a smoke scare at the county’s current facility.

“If that dispatch center would be destroyed, basically the 911 system is down,” Keller said.

City administrators supported the proposal, said Kerry Brugger, director of administration for Urbana. But he said if the BZA is not satisfied, other options would include seeking another location, drafting a new application or appealing the issue in court.

It’s not an option to let the issue die, Evans said. A group of county and city officials are trying to determine whether it makes more sense to appeal the decision to the Champaign County Common Pleas Court or create a new application to the BZA.

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