MARTINSVILLE – Proposed state legislation might enable a cell phone tower to become your new next-door neighbor without you or your local officials having any say in the matter.
Not only are Martinsville’s and Henry County’s chief planning officials concerned, but also a wireless communications industry trade association.
House Bill 1258 and Senate Bill 405, now before those chambers’ commerce and labor committees, are worded much alike in highly-technical language. According to a General Assembly website, the bills aim to establish rules “regarding applications for zoning approvals for certain wireless support structures.”
Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, is a patron of the House bill. He said it was drafted as part of efforts to expand broadband service in underserved rural areas.
Ultimately, “it’s a jobs issue,” said Marshall, who represents part of Henry County. People need high-speed Internet service to be able to do many types of jobs through telecommuting, and students must have web access to be able to earn educational credentials that will help them get jobs, he reasoned.
Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Alexandria-based Wireless Infrastructure Association, disagrees. In a recent editorial column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he wrote that having more cell phone towers “would not improve broadband access in Virginia’s underserved rural communities where economics, not regulation, are the impediment.”
A former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Adelstein currently is on the agency’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.
If the legislation is enacted, “Virginia’s landscape could be turned inadvertently into a pincushion dotted with cell phone towers.” Adelstein wrote in the column. And, “citizens would have no ability to provide meaningful comment on whether new towers can be placed in their neighborhoods, or on their neighbor’s property.”
Basically, the bills would force localities to automatically approve cell phone towers under 50 feet tall, roughly the height of a five-story building. Wireless communications firms would not have to go through the process of obtaining a special-use permit or variance from local zoning rules, the legislation shows.
Localities would have no choice but to allow wireless towers of that height and communications equipment within 500 feet of an existing utility pole, Adelstein explained in his column, and that would lead to “tower farms” developing within 500 feet of where poles already exist.
Marshall said he understands HB 1258 still would allow localities to allow cell phone towers only in certain zoning districts. Those probably would not be residential zoning districts, he said.
In addition, Adelstein wrote, the bills would prohibit localities from requiring cell phone companies to collocate their equipment on existing towers.
When several companies have the same technology on one tower, it sometimes creates interference with signals or the equipment’s operations, according to Marshall.
Lee Clark, director of the Henry County Planning, Zoning and Inspections Department, said “I don’t have a bit of a problem with” automatically approving towers under 50 feet tall. He said it has been the county’s usual practice to automatically approve those less than 75 feet tall.
In Martinsville, special-use permits are required for all telecommunications towers, said Assistant City Manager/Community Development Director Wayne Knox.
“To tell a locality to automatically approve an application for a cell phone tower, that takes away a locality’s authority” to control what can be placed on land, taking into account safety factors, he said.
Furthermore, “(owners of) adjacent properties should have some say” in how land near them is developed, Knox said. For instance, a tower erected on one property could fall onto the other site, causing costly damages, he said.
Who would be liable in that case, he questioned.
Knox said, though, that most cell phone masts erected today are designed to collapse in place, if they were to fall. Marshall said he never had heard of such a tower collapsing.
The other aspects of the proposed legislation give Clark heartburn. He indicated they could result in too many towers or masts dotting the landscape, which could make people unhappy.
In considering whether to approve a cell phone tower for a certain area, he said, the county requires service providers to prove there is no other tower or other structure – such as a tall building or elevated water tank – on which antennas could be placed to provide the same level of service.
Also, the provision allowing towers and equipment within 500 feet of an existing utility pole is “just a bad idea,” Clark said. “It’s much too lenient” and could affect too many properties.
Knox compared the issue to provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 forbidding regulations on the installation of satellite dishes less than one meter in diameter, the kind that people mostly use to receive satellite television services at their homes. Some people think having a lot of the dishes in one area is an eyesore, he indicated.
“I can hear some public outcry if these things (cell phone towers and antennas) start popping up” everywhere, Knox said.
Marshall mentioned that similar legislation previously proposed failed. Knox said he thinks the current legislation could be “a political football that nobody would want to catch.”
Some localities’ governing boards have adopted resolutions in opposition to the proposed legislation.
Knox said he will discuss with City Manager Leon Towarnicki whether Martinsville City Council might be willing to do so.
With the bills already in the committee stage, Clark said he probably will not bring up the issue with the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
Still, “I would hope that legislators see that local land-use decisions need to remain local decisions … and not left up to state government” to make, he said.
“Blanket state laws (like the ones proposed) won’t fit everywhere,” he added, because localities have different needs.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, represents all of Martinsville and Henry County and is a patron of both the House and Senate bills. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. His legislative assistant, Richard Crouse, said that Stanley, a lawyer, was in court all day.
Marshall said he did not patron the SB405 because, as a House member, he typically does not extend his support to Senate bills.
This article originally ran on martinsvillebulletin.com.