Proposed plan for Verizon Tower. Photo courtesy of Laurie Saxon.
By Oliver Heffron
Franklin County has approved the construction of a cellular tower behind Harris Stadium. The tower, stretching 185 feet into the Tennessee sky, will connect Verizon and other cellular carriers to the community, and finally end AT&T’s cellular monopoly of the area. The tower will ideally be fully operational by the Fall of 2019, but it depends on how long it will take to get the project fully approved.
The proposal was spearheaded by a collaboration between the University and Vogue Tower, as well as Verizon, Franklin County, and Franklin County Emergency Management. The tower will initially support only Verizon. However, it is engineered to support other major carriers such as Sprint and T-Mobile, and possibly other applications such as FirstNet or Dish Network. Additionally, it will support the Franklin County EMS application.
Any Sewanee student without AT&T service can attest to the lack of connectivity on campus, having probably been forced into asking their friends, “Hey, can I use your phone?” With so much of our daily lives revolving around smartphones, cellular connectivity has become a necessity.
Hayden Beck (C’20), a Verizon user, describes not having cell reception on campus, “The service here is terrible. I have to use a friend’s phone just to call my parents, which is really inconvenient.”
Without cell coverage, students have needed to connect their phones to Wi-Fi in order to use them. Lowering this saturated use of the University’s Wi-Fi networks will help them run more efficiently and at higher speeds.
The tower will vastly improve both cellular and radio connectivity for first responders operating in areas previously not covered. Certain areas of the Domain, namely the Roarks Cove and Alto Cove communities, are completely cut off from radio and cell reception. This creates a giant obstacle for first responders to deal with; it is integral that they are able to communicate with citizens. In times of emergency, where every second counts, this improved connectivity will help first responders operate more efficiently in times where they are gravely needed.
The tower provides the University’s student body with not only faster connectivity, but improved safety as well. The Student Government Association of Sewanee (SGA) voted unanimously to support the proposed cell tower, emphasizing the improved safety of students that will come with improved cellular access.
Mac Bouldin (C’19), President of the SGA, spoke about how lacking cellular connectivity is a tremendous safety concern, “If you have Verizon or a number of services and you are unable to connect to Wi-Fi for any reason, you have no means of communication. That is something SGA has been talking about for quite some time now.”
According to the University’s official press release regarding the proposal, the tower will be built behind Harris Stadium in the rear of the tailgate section. The tower will be surrounded by a 60-by-60 foot fence, with landscaping on the open side. Two other sites were inspected, the Ayres parking lot and the lot behind the Tennessee Williams Center, but this site was chosen for its ideal location to support wireless services in the most populated parts of campus.
Lease owners of the surrounding neighborhood of Harris stadium have not been pleased with the tower and its proposal process. Dale Richardson, a retired English professor, and his wife Leslie live in a historic home bordering the south endzone of Hardee-McGee field.
The tower’s initial proposal was turned down due to Franklin County zoning restrictions that stated no tower could be built if its fall radius (height of the tower) in any direction reached outside the tower’s property line. This ensures that if a tower should fall, it would fall on unoccupied land and not somebody’s home. The Richardson’s home falls within the range of the proposed tower, which will be roughly the height of an 18-story building.
After the initial denial of the proposal due to zoning regulations in August, the Richardsons were shocked to find a public notice informing the community of the tower’s proposal on the back page of the Sewanee Messenger in late December. Dale Richardson contacted the Zoning Board to find out how the proposal was moving forward despite its earlier denial.
According to Richardson, the Franklin County Regional Planning Commission added a variance to the section of the county’s Zoning Resolution regarding the tower’s fall radius without informing the local residents from Franklin County Zoning Resolution. Article IV. Section 17.9. Where they claimed that the rule should be exempted when the tower is needed for emergency communications.
Dale Richardson was disappointed with the University’s lack of communication with the local residents as they attempted to get approval. With regards to the county meeting, Dale explained, “The meeting was not televised, and nobody knew it was happening.”
Leslie Richardson, President of the Sewanee Trust for Historic Preservation, worries about the negative impact the aesthetic of the tower will have on the historic properties surrounding Harris stadium. She was appalled by how the University’s description of the tower in its initial press, which claimed, “The location of the tower will be tucked away in the rear tailgate section of Sewanee’s Harris section.”
Leslie explained, “Tucked away sounds cozy and warm. You are not going to tuck away an 18-story building with barbed wire around the base!”
While the tower will bring improved connection to an area that badly needs it, its specific location in the heart of Sewanee’s most historic area has not been received well by the area’s residents.
Larry Majors (C’64), is the manager of the neighboring Majors house and has a special sentimental connection with the plot of grass where the tower will be built. Larry’s father, Shirley Majors, was the head coach of the Sewanee football team from 1957 to 1977 and was extremely successful. Majors played for his father and later coached for him through his final eight years. Every Tuesday and Wednesday the team would congregate on this patch of grass for an intense scrimmage.
Larry can still remember those practices, saying, “We lost blood, we lost sweat, we had fights. Just battling every day. I went against roommates, people I loved, but out there it didn’t matter. Those days were brutal, but when it was all over, those practices meant everything.” This patch of grass meant so much to Larry that he married his wife, Lucy, right there behind Harris stadium.
The proposal for the tower has received zoning approval, and its height has been cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Construction on the tower is currently waiting on two regulatory approvals, from the National Environment and Policy Act (NEPA) and the State Historic Preservation Office.