Bill would limit local oversight of cellphone towers

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2013 

Local towns and counties would have little say in restricting proposed modifications and additions to cellphone towers under legislation introduced in the state House.

The bill touches on the touchy issue of the ubiquitous towers many residents count on for dependable wireless access but curse for their ugliness. Some fear the bill is replacing bad regulations with no regulations.

Rep. Mike Hager, who introduced the bill, said it’s essential to make it easier for wireless companies to add antennas so they can expand service and boost capacity to transmit data.

“Our absorption rate in western counties is just terrible,” said Hager, a Republican who represents Rutherford County. “Kids can’t do homework or take tests online because they don’t have access.”

The legislation is causing concern, however, because it would get local governments out of the business of regulating such modifications.

Michael Harvey, planning supervisor for Orange County, said it “will have a negative impact on communities because we won’t be able to regulate certain issues for public safety.”

But Harvey noted some of the changes are long overdue, because it’s widely known that minor modifications can get tied up for months in city hall reviews. Such a bill, he said, would clean up a patchwork of rules.

The bill covers new antennas and modifications up to 10 percent of the height of the tower. It also permits increasing the fenced-in area below the tower, which is usually about 200 square feet, to as much as 2,500 square feet.

Most importantly, the bill says that “a city may not deny and shall approve any application” for adding antennas.

“This has the de facto effect of deregulating anything but a new tower,” said Lawrence “Rusty” Monroe, owner of the Center for Municipal Solutions, a Wake Forest firm that advises local governments on cell tower applications.

The bill also prohibits cities and counties from paying Monroe’s company, or others like it, more than $500 for consulting services to review an antenna application or other modification. Monroe, who has advised local governments throughout the country, said his fees are usually $3,000 to $3,500.

Hager’s legislation does not affect how local authorities oversee the location and construction of new towers, however.

Hager said he considers his bill an early draft and he’s open to making changes.

“What we want is to streamline the process to encourage greater investment to allow us to deploy services faster to serve our customers,” said AT&T spokesman Clifton Metcalf.

Getting local approvals for additional antennas is considered fast if it takes one to two months, but some applications can take as much as nine months to process, said Richard Byrne, CEO of TowerCo, a Cary business that owns or managers more than 500 cellphone towers nationwide.

“There’s a push nationwide for this to happen,” Byrne said. “There’s been a lot of drafting of local rules to delay or inhibit the buildout of wireless facilities.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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