Cities lose ability to regulate cellphone towers

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Jim Leute
Friday, August 16, 2013

JANESVILLE—With their bullets taken away, city officials are concerned the community could become a Wild West of cellular telephone towers.

A recent change in state law prohibits communities from regulating most aspects of phone tower installations.

The new law prohibits governments from denying cellphone tower permits solely for aesthetic reasons, limiting their size to less than 200 feet or requiring that towers be placed on public property.

Janesville has controlled the placement of cellphone towers by requiring a conditional use permit for anything more than 30 feet, said Gale Price, Janesville's manager of building and development services.

“We had every bit of authority to control the aesthetics and location of the towers,” he said.

The city—and other municipalities around the state—lost that authority when the law was changed as part of the state's recent budget bill.

“We thought we were doing a good job of meeting the needs of the cellphone networks without overwhelming the community with towers on every corner,” Price said. “We tried to limit them and co-locate them where we could.”

Proponents said the change will speed up the placement of equipment needed to keep up with growth of cellular phone service and wireless broadband.

Previously, they argued, it could take years of back-and-forth with municipalities to get permission for construction.

While some communities had a simple permit process, others placed moratoriums on wireless towers that resulted in lengthy delays in improving service, AT&T spokesman Jim Greer told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The regulatory patchwork was one reason some areas of the state don't have good wireless coverage, Greer told the newspaper.

The service providers also complained local governments required them to put antennas on water towers and other public property and then charged them thousands of dollars a month to lease the space.

Janesville had no such mandate, and the city did not collect lease fees from providers.

“There are communities that restricted them to public property and then collected that revenue stream,” said Jay Winzenz, Janesville's acting city manager. “We didn't do that.”

Winzenz and Price said the new law hamstrings the community.

“It's unfortunate, but it's the state's mindset at this point,” Price said.

Neither Winzenz nor Price has heard any complaints about new cellphone tower sitings.

But the new law is only 6 weeks old, they said.

“I think it's just a matter of time,” Price said. “When these leases run out, there will be an opportunity for the phone companies to look for the best deals and new locations, and we won't have any control over that.”

Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor at UW-Madison, said that unless a wireless company wants to put a tower in the middle of the street, there's not much a municipality could do about it.

“This was a bill that was written by AT&T and the other cellular providers,” he told the Milwaukee newspaper. “As a result, we are going to see a lot more cell towers in places we wouldn't have seen them otherwise.

“It's going to be visual pollution that we have to live with.”

Last updated: 11:33 am Friday, August 16, 2013

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