Does a cell tower built across the street from a historic cemetery adversely affect the property? If there are significant visual impacts, as this article suggests, could historic preservation laws and regulatory reviews have prevented or reduced the impacts?
South-View Cemetery is Atlanta, Georgia’s oldest and arguably most historic African American cemetery. Yet, as Georgia State University historian Richard Laub noted in a 2010 interview with alt-weekly Creative Loafing, it’s an “unjustly ignored site” that doesn’t receive the same amount of support, recognition, and respect that its better-known Atlanta counterpart, Oakland Cemetery, gets. The article for which Laub was interviewed was titled, “Atlanta’s forgotten black history.”
Founded in 1886, South-View is the final resting place for many of Atlanta’s black elite. According to the cemetery’s website, more than 70,000 people are interred in the cemetery’s rolling 200 acres and it is the oldest surviving African American non-eleemosynary corporation in the United States.
Insurance millionaire Alonzo F. Herndon (1858-1927) shares the landscape with many of Atlanta’s most respected African American clergy and civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. briefly was buried in South-View before his body was reinterred at the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (King Center) in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District. King’s father is buried there along with many of the nation’s leading civil rights figures.
Also buried at South-view are lynching victims and Atlantans who died in the 1906 race riot. School teachers, musicians, masons, and writers also are buried there as are victims of serial killers in the 1910s and the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. South-View Cemetery is a veritable African American History Who-Was-Who.
Despite the cemetery’s long-recognized historical significance, it is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places nor is it a designated City of Atlanta landmark or historic district (Oakland Cemetery was designated in 1989). It also appears to have not merited a good faith effort to identify historic properties and evaluate the effects of a personal wireless facility that was constructed on commercial property at 2009 Jonesboro Road SE. The parcel is owned by the South-View Cemetery Association.
Now owned by Crown Castle International Corporation, a national communications tower company based in Canonsburg, Pa., the 199-foot monopole tower appears to have been constructed by the now-defunct Southeast Towers, Inc. as an antenna support structure for Voicestream Wireless, a company that was acquired in 2002 by wireless carrier T-Mobile. Because it is below 200 feet, the tower is not registered in the Federal Communications Commission’s Antenna Structure Registration database. The lack of registration also means that the tower was determined by its builder, acting on behalf of the FCC in National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act regulatory compliance, to not adversely affect properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Telecommunications companies (wireless providers and infrastructure companies) have been required to fulfill the FCC’s obligations to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act since the FCC first issued environmental rules in 1974. Successful regulatory compliance has resulted in carefully sited facilities with appropriate mitigation measures taken where historic properties have been affected. With telecommunications towers this means efforts to minimize visibility or to camouflage antennas and their tower structures.
Unsuccessful compliance efforts include facilities that were constructed without any Section 106 consultation or mitigation efforts that failed to effectively minimize a facility’s visibility. The latter are evident throughout the United States along roadsides and in cities where they appear as outsized trees, flagpoles, and other structures.
The Jonesboro Road tower was built approximately 200 feet from the boundary of a property that is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Preliminary work on a National Register nomination had been completed prior the tower’s construction and efforts are underway to complete a National Register nomination package according to local historians and cemetery staff.
The antenna structure and its antenna array are visible from many points within South-View cemetery, including the viewscapes and viewsheds of significant Atlantans’ graves like mortuary entrepreneur David T. Howard (1849-1935) and the overall designed cultural landscape. Visitors to the Martin Luther King Sr. (“Daddy King) grave site have a full view of the tower in the tomb’s background.
Does the Jonesboro Road wireless facility adversely affect a historic property, e.g., South-View Cemetery? I don’t know because I haven’t done the necessary investigations to determine if it alters the ways in which people interact with the cultural landscape within the cemetery — a crucial test to determine if the facility diminishes the integrity of the historic property that qualifies it for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (as detailed in 36 CFR Part 800, the rules implementing Section 106).
There are seven aspects of integrity historic preservation professionals use to evaluate whether or not a property is sufficiently legible to convey what it was historically and why it is important today. Admittedly subjective, the integrity assessment ensures that substantially deteriorated buildings and significantly altered historic landscapes are not designated historic. To be listed in the National Register of Historic Places and under many state and local preservation laws, a property must meet one or more architectural or associational significance criteria and it must retain sufficient integrity to communicate why it is historically significant. According to the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, the seven aspects of integrity are:
- Location: The place where the historic property was constructed or the place where the historic event occurred.
- Design: The combination of elements that create the form, plan, space, structure, and style of a property.
- Setting: The physical environment of a historic property.
- Materials: The physical elements that were combined or deposited during a particular period of time and in a particular pattern or configuration to form a historic property.
- Workmanship: The physical evidence of the crafts of a particular culture or people during any given period in history or prehistory.
- Feeling: A property’s expression of the aesthetic or historic sense of a particular period of time.
- Association: The direct link between an important historic event or person and a historic property. (National Register Bulletin, How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.)
Records in the Georgia state historic preservation office (Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division [HPD]) show that Section 106 compliance was initiated on behalf of the FCC’s licensee, Voicestream Wireless (T-Mobile), in June 2002 by Urban Palimpsest, a historic preservation consulting firm that did business in Atlanta at the time. South-View Cemetery was one of two properties previously determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the Georgia HPD and three additional properties identified by the consultant in its survey.¹
Urban Palimpsest wrote a one-page paragraph summarizing South-View Cemetery’s setting and National Register status:
Preliminary National Register documentation has been completed on South View [sic] Cemetery, chartered in 1886 and comprising 200 acres … The cemetery is located on a raised bluff just off Jonesboro Road and directly across from the proposed tower site. Some areas within the cemetery, including the view toward the proposed tower site, feature mature trees …. Other areas within the cemetery are relatively bare revealing existing visual intrusions … The cemetery does appear to have a vegetative buffer along its perimeter … While the proposed tower may be visible due [sic.] from some areas within the cemetery due to proximity, it will likely only be partially visible due to the elevation of the cemetery, existing vegetative buffering and the modest height of the proposed tower. Therefore, the proposed tower construction will have an effect upon this resource, however it should not be adverse.
The consultant’s report was reviewed in July 2002. Writing on behalf of HPD, then-Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Richard Cloues agreed with the consultant that the tower would not adversely affect historic properties. “Based on the information provided, HPD believes that the tower’s visibility will be minimal, and therefore concurs that the proposed cellular tower will have no adverse effects to historic properties” [emphasis in original].
The Georgia HPD appears to have been the only consulting party identified in the 2002 compliance effort. Had Section 106 consultations been done according to the process outlined in 36 CFR Part 800, the telecommunications company that built the tower would have taken steps to identify historic properties, like South-View Cemetery, and they also would have identified consulting parties — stakeholders — in addition to HPD to asses what impacts the tower might have on them. According to 36 CFR Part 800 [PDF],
The goal of consultation is to identify historic properties potentially affected by the undertaking, assess its effects and seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate any adverse effects on historic properties …
Certain individuals and organizations with a demonstrated interest in the undertaking may participate as consulting parties due to the nature of their legal or economic relation to the undertaking or affected properties, or their concern with the undertaking’s effects on historic properties.
All too often consultation in Section 106 regulatory compliance is limited to an exchange of paper and electronic data between project proponents and state historic preservation offices. Consultation, notes authors Tom King and Claudia Nissley in a blurb for their newly published book, Consultation and Cultural Heritage, most often involves “merely checking off a box on the list of tasks required to implement a project.”
The wireless facility does not enhance the cemetery’s aesthetics and few — except, perhaps, the most strident infrastructure engineers — would argue that the tower and antennas improve views within the cemetery. The tower is a prominent focal point within the oldest and most significant part of the cemetery, its western area adjacent to Jonesboro Road. And, it is a middleground backdrop for visitors visiting graves in that part of the cemetery and for viewers trying to appreciate the feeling of a Victorian memorial park.
Winifred Watts Hemphill is descended from prominent Atlantans buried in South-View and she is the South-View Cemetery Association’s president. Hemphill explained that her predecessor leased the property across the street to the telecom company. “So my predecessor here was looking at a way to get funds off of those properties over there and so she licensed it to them,” Hemphill said in her South-View Cemetery office.
The cemetery has been engaged in a longterm project to improve the blighted Jonesboro Road corridor in its proximity. “There was an old defunct A&P store over there that we have had removed and beside it there was defunct gas station that we had removed,” Hemphill explained. “So we are slowly but surely trying to clean up the things we own in this neighborhood.”
I asked Hemphill if she thinks the tower impacts the cemetery. “It is somewhat of an eyesore,” she admitted. “I agree with that. But it’s not as much of an eyesore as what was there before.”
Historian Laub’s evaluation of South-View’s neglect may have been too narrow. His colleagues in Georgia’s state historic preservation office typically find that wireless towers proposed near historic properties adversely affect those properties by virtue of their mere visibility. This standard has resulted in the construction of many camouflaged towers throughout the state as well as FCC-licensee-funded historical studies (like one of Atlanta’s Little Five Points Commercial District or Beaver Run Farm in Jones County) prepared as “mitigation” measures to fulfill the FCC’s requirements to avoid, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects to historic properties.
Who is to say at this point, except for the affected viewer populations who consider South-View Cemetery a significant cultural landscape and historic place, whether the wireless tower across Jonesboro Road adversely affects the historic property? The state historic preservation office’s Section 106 compliance file clearly documents that no one other than HPD reviewers was asked before the tower was built. As a cemetery visitor, a member of one of those affected viewer populations, with a little experience in evaluating visual impacts to historic properties by telecommunications facilities I can say unequivocally that the tower has diminished the cemetery’s setting and feeling, two of the seven aspects of integrity used to evaluate eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.²
1. Georgia HPD File No. HP-020610-004, Cell Tower: 2009 Jonesboro Road, Atlanta. Georgia Archives, Morrow, GA.
2. This article was inspired by a casual visit to South-View Cemetery March 15, 2014.
Postscript: I shared a draft of this post with South-View Cemetery Association president Winifred Watts Hemphill. In her reply she noted that the tower appears in online sources documenting notable interrments. Hemhill wrote March 19, 2014, “Another ‘notable’ that the tower obstructs pictures of is Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. Look at the picture on Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=70881318&PIpi=43466552.”
Prior to publishing this post I wrote to staff at the Georgia HPD to see if they wanted to comment on the video slide show documenting the tower’s visibility. An environmental review historian with the agency replied by email, “No, but thank you for the opportunity.”
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein