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Mahtomedi braces for wireless installations

MAHTOMEDI — If you didn’t like wireless communications facilities barnacled all over water towers or hanging on free standing towers, a change is coming.

Wireless cell boxes might also be draped around a street light near you.

The City Council at its Dec. 19 regular meeting gave grudging approval to the first of three actions to permit wireless service providers to install small wireless facilities in public rights of way.

The first of three tasks in the process completed Tuesday was to adopt a standard collocation agreement to install small wireless facilities on city-owned wireless support structures.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature amended Statutes Chapter 237 to recognize wireless service providers as “telecommunications right of way users” and to require cities to permit them to install wireless facilities in public rights of way. The legislation also places limits on fees the city may charge the wireless service providers and requires that the city include the terms of collocation either in their ordinances or adopt a standard collocation agreement that complies with the legislation for use with the wireless service providers.

City staff recommended that council adopt the collocation agreement rather than put the terms of that collocation into City Code, so that the city could more easily change the collation agreement as needed over time.

“We’re adopting the standard collation agreement adopted by League of Minnesota Cities tonight,” said City Attorney Jay Karlovich. “The new small-cell law allows any wireless company the same rights as the cable company or Xcel Energy.” They must be permitted to put up small cell boxes to make cell phones work in houses so anyone can stream data. The boxes on top of the poles are supposed to be less than six cubic feet in volume, he said.

Mahtomedi owns only 12 to 14 light poles outright, most of which are near Southwest Park. Most of the poles in the city are owned by Xcel Energy, Karlovich said. “We’re going to come back with a proposed right of way ordinance and a zoning ordinance. We can regulate them so (they) can’t put a huge box right in front of a resident’s window, for example,” he said. “For tonight, the city can adopt the standard model collocation agreement that we may never use because we don’t have many light poles.”

“Can decorative poles be made to get a box and make the whole pole ugly?” Councilwoman Lael Ramaley wondered.

Yes, and there is nothing the city can do about it, Councilman Joel Schilling said.

“It was a fairly ugly battle at the Legislature with very powerful entities against the League of Minnesota Cities,” Schilling said. “The League was starting to be taken to the cleaners.” In the past, some telecommunications companies have gone out of business or merged and “left stuff there,” he said. Municipalities have been stuck with items on fixtures in rights of way. “We lost that battle.”

Businesses can say to municipalities, “I’m bankrupt; the cell box is yours,” Schilling said.

At upcoming meetings, council will complete the process by revising the city’s right of way management ordinance and amend the zoning ordinance to reflect small wireless facilities as permitted uses in the right of way abutting non-residential zoning districts and to reflect small wireless facilities as conditional uses in the right of way abutting residential zoning districts.

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