Divine Deployment: Cell Sites on Church Property
While churches are becoming more and more popular as sites for cellular antennas, the fact remains that organizations focused on theology may not have the requisite knowledge of the leasing business. Sometimes it pays to ask for help.
Most churches love leasing space to wireless carriers. Just ask Doug Williams from University United Methodist Church in Irvine, CA. “Our leases have made a big difference for us,” he said.
Williams was referring not only to the recurring lease revenue but also to the two 50-foot crosses on the church property that were installed as stealth antenna sites. The money helps fund ministries and the crosses draw attention to their property. University United Methodist negotiated its leases well by enlisting the help of an attorney.
“We made sure we got a fair deal and we continue to enlist someone to help us with ongoing questions and issues” said Williams. This is not the rule for most churches, however, because few are able to spend the money it takes to get professional advice.
Sites with appeal
Churches have been sought out as sites by the wireless carriers for several years. Their appeal is related first to their location and second to the features commonly found on church properties. Many churches are located in densely populated communities where carrier coverage and capacity needs are high. Churches also typically have taller structures such as steeples or bell towers providing excellent line-of-site coverage for cell site deployments. Nearly all have ample space for the addition of a ground-based cross similar to the one at University United Methodist. As carrier build-outs continue into residential areas, the desirability of church properties is likely to increase. It’s not always a good fit, though. Some congregations bristle at the idea of cell sites on their property. Citing concerns about health hazards, tax liability, aesthetics, and even network content, some churches turn away the lucrative lease offers. Zoning challenges and community resistance sometime impede the process and there are typically additional costs to conceal antennas. Despite these challenges, the United States has an estimated 10,000 church landlords.
When it comes to negotiating the lease, several specific issues concern churches. The rent amount is always important because churches are typically self-supporting non-profit organizations where budgets are tight. In some cases, the rent from a lease can make the difference between funding a ministry or mission or not. Access to the property by the tenant must usually be restricted during church services and other functions.
Taxes are another important matter. Although most churches qualify for U.S. income tax exceptions, some may not be exempt from local property tax reassessment and will seek reimbursement from the tenant. Churches are not usually looking for special treatment but want their tenants to understand the attributes that differentiate them from other building and property owners. Most churches make decisions by committee vote. This can cause long delays and may turn carriers away because time-to-market is the primary goal of most cell site deployments. Understanding the decision-making process and offering incentives to quick lease signings will help speed the process. Few churches seek the assistance of outside representation to assist with negotiation and help streamline the process. In recent years, companies have emerged offering advice and counsel to landlords seeking such assistance. The goal is to level the playing field for lease negotiations and expedite the deployment process so that both sides benefit.
Marketing church properties
Some churches are taking a proactive approach by marketing their properties. They want wireless companies to know they are friendly and willing landlords. Churches needing extra revenue are actively seeking it. Consultants provide help to landlords by offering them education and professional representation with lease negotiation and site management. This benefits the church client but also has an upside to the tenant by expediting the lease signing and speeding deployment.
Current local planning and zoning requirements in urban areas frequently means concealment of the antennas. As a result, “stealth sites” are more common now than ever when deployed at churches. This adds to the cost and time required for construction but eases the aesthetic effect on the surrounding area. In fact, recent advancements in stealth siting can improve the look of a church. At a minimum, larger sites, such as crosses, attract attention to the property to the benefit of the church.
A common scenario with churches is the presence of schools either co-located or adjacent to the property. This usually raises concerns about the health effects of radio frequency emissions and can sometimes cause opposition from parents and neighbors. While this rarely influences the church to turn away a lease offer, it may cause delay in getting the site approved by local officials in addition to straining relations within the church. Accurate and unbiased information goes a long way to quelling the emotions surrounding such issues. Publications from the FCC and FDA available online can help provide facts for those concerned.
Once the lease is signed and the site deployed, the landlord and tenant may experience difficulty communicating. This problem may arise when carriers merge and leases change hands. Thirdparty renegotiation offers and buyout proposals may cause confustion. Church leaders who seek answers from their tenants may find it a challenge to connect with the right person or office.
Church landlords are grateful for the opportunities that come from leasing space to wireless tenants. Besides recurring revenue, the tenants sometimes offer improvement to the land or buildings. “They actually helped improve our facilities by replacing the roof of our steeple” said Pastor Bill Jenkins from Christ United Methodist Church in San Diego. For Jenkins and his church, the lease just made sense.