Published Sunday, February 17, 2013
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
A bill moving through the Georgia House of Representatives would limit the authority local governments have over the placement of “wireless communication facilities” — commonly known as cell towers.
House Bill 176 would limit the criteria that counties and cities can use when considering applications for towers or modifications of existing towers. It would prohibit governments from requiring bonds for the removal of towers if abandoned, and would set a strict 150-day window for the approval process. If a governing body doesn’t vote on a tower application within 150 days after the application is complete, the application is automatically approved.
HB 176, also known as the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development — BILD — Act, was approved Thursday by the Telecommunications Subcommittee of the House Energy Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.
It will now go before the full committee.
Coweta County has an extensive tower ordinance, written several years ago after the county was sued for denying two tower applications. The county lost in court and was required to approve the applications.
If HB 176 becomes law, it will strike down at least one integral part of Coweta’s tower ordinance — the requirement that communications companies demonstrate the new tower is needed to resolve gaps in coverage.
Currently, as long as the company can prove it needs the tower to fill gaps, the governing body is required to approve it, under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.
“The Telecommunications Act says all they have to do is prove a need,” Coweta Development Review Planner Teresa Crow said in December. “We are setting ourselves up for a lawsuit if we deny it.”
According to HB 176, new towers or expansions/ upgrades of existing towers would be subject to the same rules.
The bill states the governing authority’s review “shall not include an evaluation of the technical, business or service characteristics of such proposed wireless facilities. A local governing authority shall not require an applicant to submit radio frequency analysis or any other documentation intended to demonstrate the proposed service characteristics of the proposed wireless facilities, to illustrate the need for such wireless facilities, or to justify the business decisions” to add additional antennas to a tower, known as “collocation.”
The law also says that governments may not “evaluate an application solely based on the availability of other potential locations for the placement of wireless support structures or wireless facilities.”
Under Coweta’s ordinance, companies must prove that there is no existing tower they can put an antenna on to fill the coverage gap.
In 2010, the commissioners held public hearings on two towers very near each other — one on Parks Road and one on Lora Smith Road near its intersection with Lower Fayetteville Road.
After approving the Parks Road tower, the commissioners voted to delay approval of the Lora Smith Road tower and ask the applicants, Skyway Towers and AT&T, to see if co-locating on the Parks Road tower would eliminate the need for the Lora Smith tower.
The next week, the issue was back before the commissioners. The applicants had presented signal propagation maps with a white area showing the coverage gap. With the Parks Road tower, that white area disappeared.
Even though the map showed no gap in coverage, the signal might not be strong enough for an AT&T phone to be used in all rooms of every home in the area, said Frank Romeo, representing Skyway and AT&T.
“We are talking about residential coverage here. Folks who live, possibly, in a brick house would not have coverage throughout their house and that is what we are trying to achieve,” Romeo said. Residents in the area might be able to use the phone inside near a window or in a home with wood siding, Romeo said at the time.
The commissioners unanimously voted to approve the tower.
Under HR 176, minor modifications to a tower wouldn’t even come back before the local governments. That would include increasing the height of the tower by 10 feet or “by the height of one additional antenna array with separation from the nearest existing antenna exceeding 20 feet, whichever is greater.”
Other allowable expansions would be increasing the width by less than 20 feet or expanding the equipment compound on the ground by less than 30 linear feet.
HB 176 is sponsored by Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta. Parsons is the chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee and is a telecommunications consultant.
At Thursday’s hearing, Parsons said that “we need to make sure we keep Georgia law on pace with consumer demands.”
Industry representatives told the subcommittee that Georgia’s economic vitality suffers when technology lags because local officials won’t approve installation of sufficient wireless capacity.
“The general attitude of local government has become more difficult over time,” said AT&T lobbyist Kevin Curtain.
Despite the restrictions that the bill places on local governments, HB 127 expressly states that it is “not the intent of this chapter to limit or preempt the scope of a local government’s review of zoning, land use, or permitting applications for the siting of wireless facilities or wireless support structures or to require a local government to exercise its zoning power.”