Cell Towers as Part of Church Landscapes
By Viki Sox Fecas, Church Council President at Emmanuel, West Columbia
It’s the phone call that every church treasurer would love to receive! Someone calls and offers a ‘guaranteed revenue stream for the next 50 years’. This would allow them to pay down the mortgage, hire additional staff and expand some ministries. Where do they sign?
While it seems like a no brainer, it’s important that the congregation pray about it, discuss it thoroughly and educate themselves about what is at stake. Cell tower companies see churches as attractive sites because many times they are on higher ground – which is great for radio signals to propagate, and they are likely to be around for many years to come. But cell tower companies are for-profit companies. This means that they are trying to position themselves for the most advantageous deal.
Negotiating a fair deal for the church typically begins with initial discussions with a site acquisition consultant who works for the cell tower company. For instance, do they wish to locate a tower on your property or put an antenna in the steeple? If in the steeple, where will the equipment cage be located? How would the church address the cell company’s required 24×7 access to the rooftop? What happens if the church needs to replace the rooftop where the antenna is located or needs to relocate a tower? Also, what type of power will be needed and what type of utility easement may be required across the property to run power to the site? A myriad of factual and site-specific questions come up for each church.
A typical tower lease will range between 30-40 years. Depending on the location, some are even longer! This is especially important to consider as your grounds will be burdened by the lease for a LONG TIME. Your congregation has to think about what it may do (or need to do) with your property long term (e.g. selling off adjacent property or expanding the church cemetery). You have to ensure you have the flexibility for those actions and the time to negotiate that flexibility into the lease BEFORE the lease is signed.
While the property committee members will most likely be to ones to flesh out many of these details, it’s important that they not ‘agree’ to any lease terms with the site acquisition consultants as they will use ‘any’ verbal agreement as the basis for the formal lease terms they propose to you. Remember, the tower companies negotiate these leases every day with unsuspecting property owners. An asset at this stage is to engage with a property-owner focused tower consultant to help you with the process. Not only do they advocate for the church in these negotiations, they can help to maximize the amount of monthly rental now and into the future as well as help a church to avoid legal headaches.
The hardest step in the process is the waiting game! From first contact by a site acquisition consultant to negotiating and signing a lease, it can sometime take more than a calendar year. Your congregation should have a ‘walk away’ or ‘floor’ rental amount that it has agreed upon. If the offer by the tower company does not meet that minimum figure, let those financial terms – along with the other deal points that your advisor has helped you identify – guide you in when and whether to walk away. If you have that leverage working for you, that will serve you well in the various stages of negotiation, especially as the tower company is working with their own deadline and trying to secure their ‘preferred’ site, which is your church!
Viki Sox Fecas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Church Council President at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in West Columbia, SC, and it was recently contacted by a cell tower company to place a tower on their property. Rob Turner (email@example.com) is the founder of Cell Tower Team, LLC, a property-owner focused cell tower lease advisory firm which works with many clients, including churches, helping them negotiate fair and profitable lease terms.