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Sandy Springs aims to stop broadband bill to protect right-of-way

First it was concrete vs. wood. Now it’s the right-of-way.

Four days after the city of Sandy Springs announced in a news conference it’s against Georgia House Bill 876, which would nullify the city’s building code relating to how high wood structures could be built, the city is now battling the state over Senate Bill 426, which aims to make it easier for broadband Internet access to come to rural areas but in turn gives companies and utilities the right to install equipment in the right-of-way without much regulation.

“I’ve been at the Georgia General Assembly since 1977 in one form or another. I’ve never seen so many bills to take away local control,” Mayor Rusty Paul said during the Sandy Springs City Council meeting last week at City Hall, where the council voted 5-0 to approve a resolution opposing SB 426. District 2 Councilman Steve Soteres was absent.

The previous Friday, city leaders announced plans to stop HB 876. In August 2016 Sandy Springs amended its code to require all new buildings more than three stories or 100,000 square feet to be constructed with concrete or other nonflammable material and not wood.

But HB 876, which was approved by the House Feb. 22, would make it legal again to use wood there, reverting back to the state’s minimum standards for construction and the Georgia fire code. The bill must be approved by the Senate and then signed by the governor to become law.

Now the city also hopes to halt SB 426, which would undo the work it’s done to improve its streetscapes, leaders said. Right-of-way is defined as a type of public easement reserved over the land for transportation purposes and can be used for sidewalks, street lights, landscaping, fire hydrants, pipes, power poles and other items. But SB 426 would allow broadband equipment, which some city leaders called unsightly, to also be installed there. The bill was approved by the Senate Feb. 28 and must be passed by the House before the governor can sign it into law.

“Sandy Springs has spent millions of dollars in aesthetic improvements as one of the council’s top priorities,” City Manager John McDonough said. “We’re looking at letting them have unfettered access up and down our streets with no ability whatsoever to make them (adhere to the city’s code).

“… This is pitched as a rural development initiative, but the companies are going to go where the population and density are, which the city is.”

District 51 State. Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, one of the six senators to co-sponsor SB 426, said he is aware of municipalities’ concerns over the bill, and their leaders are in negotiations with legislators about it.

“While we are working to improve internet access to rural Georgia, this legislation will be an important tool for emerging technologies that will enhance wireless connectivity and last mile solutions in both rural and urban settings in Georgia,” Gooch said. “I suspect the initial investment will appear in higher populated cities and downtown settings first, but the expansion of the equipment will eventually expand out into the rural communities of Georgia. We also have two other bills in the Senate that will help address the lack of affordable and dependable Internet access in rural Georgia.”

He said many Georgians are not aware that what can and can’t be placed in rights-of-ways is already covered by state law. Gooch argued SB 426 will actually give municipalities more local control over the right-of-way issue regarding “the small cell infrastructure in the right-of-way than all other utilities.”

“It is also important to note that cities and counties lay most of their own utilities like water, sewer, gas and electric lines along the state highway rights-of-way without compensating the state for said use of state property.”

In other news, City Attorney Dan Lee said Sandy Springs is fighting to get nearly $650,000 it claims it’s owed because the city of Atlanta and Fulton County incorrectly have collected alcohol excise taxes totaling more than $400,000 and license fees totaling $240,000 from Sandy Springs’ adult entertainment clubs since the city’s ordinance to regulate adult entertainment businesses went into effect in 2006.

He said these clubs must first get a local license before a state license, also required, can be issued to them.

Since 2006 the city has been in at least three legal battles with those businesses over the constitutionality of its ordinance. One case was heard by the State Supreme Court Monday and the city’s argument went well, Lee said.

“We will be amending the state lawsuit to enforce the alcohol adult entertainment ordinance that had been stayed in Fulton Superior Court Friday, to include (both sets of fees),” he said.

In other news, Police Chief Ken DeSimone said most alarm companies are complying with the city's amended false alarm ordinance, which was approved by the council in September and went into effect the following month. However, Capt. Danny Nable said the city has not received all the funds from the bills it has sent out for code violations.

“We billed out $428,855 and collected $135,850," Nable said. "Most of those charges were for violations by the alarm company-failure to make two-call verification attempt and/or failure to register-and not false alarm charges that may or may not have been passed to the alarm user.”

Finally, during the work session before the meeting, the council discussed adding a notification provision to its newly amended code of ordinances regarding short-term rentals. At its previous meeting Feb. 20, the council voted to allow for more regulation of short-term rentals. The notification could be for entire homeowners associations and/or just neighbors of the person renting out his or her home.

But District 6 Councilman Andy Bauman said the notification portion may not have much effect on individuals renting out their homes.

“I personally would be opposed to it. It’s a notification sort of without meaning,” Bauman said. “It’s one thing for us to say. ‘You’ve got to (abide by) the noise ordinance, you have to be inspected, you have to pay a business license and you have to pay a hotel/motel tax.’ I just think in this case, it’s a notification without meaning. I don’t think I could support it.”

But Paul disagreed, saying, “I think it would be helpful if the identity of my neighbors were changing on a fairly frequent basis. I kind of would like to know what’s going on. … I’d be a little bit more relaxed about it, knowing they must have rented the place out again.”

The notification portion of the ordinance could be voted on at the council’s March 20 meeting.

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