COLUMBUS — When Columbus City Council members authorized an 80-foot cell tower in the northeast corner of Glur Park they received pushback from residents living in the area.
City staff members responded by spending the past several months working with a New York-based consulting group to update the local rules that regulate wireless communications facilities.
Now Verizon Wireless, which installed the evergreen-looking tower in Glur Park, is opposing the proposed ordinance aimed at protecting the health and safety of local residents and preserving the character of neighborhoods when these facilities are considered.
Minneapolis, Minnesota-based law firm Moss & Barnett, which represents Verizon, called the 26-page ordinance discussed Monday night by city council members unnecessarily onerous and said it could lead to “contentious battles” with wireless communication providers.
The ordinance, which has not been adopted by the city council but was supported Monday night, is needed to keep up with a rapidly changing industry that’s beyond the expertise of city staff members, City Administrator Tara Vasicek said during Monday’s meeting.
The update would put The Center for Municipal Solutions, which Vasicek described as an “expert in the field,” in charge of reviewing applications for wireless communication facilities before a recommendation is sent to the city council for consideration.
Vasicek said this will “slow down the process” and give everyone involved more time to understand the full scope of a project, including those living and working near a proposed tower site.
“It will dramatically help at City Hall,” she said.
But that’s not how Verizon sees it.
In an email sent Monday to city officials, Moss & Barnett said the ordinance creates an “unduly complicated application process” that adds thousands of dollars in project costs and threatens to delay or halt future upgrades to wireless systems in Columbus.
The Center for Municipal Solutions’ involvement in other jurisdictions “had a direct, negative impact” on wireless service improvements, the law firm wrote.
Robert Naumann, with the consulting group founded in 1987, said the goal isn’t to make ordinances so complex they discourage the development of wireless communication facilities. But, he added, local governments also must maintain control over where towers can go, what they look like and other aspects of a project.
“We’re here to represent your interests and to make sure your interests are being protected,” said Naumann, a professional engineer who previously worked in the telecommunications industry and served as chairman of the planning commission in Elkhorn.
The proposed ordinance covers the application and permitting process for wireless communication facilities, putting an emphasis on sharing tower space to reduce the number of structures needed, protecting public safety and minimizing the aesthetic impact.
“We don’t want to end up with 25 towers in Columbus when we could survive just fine with five,” Vasicek said while describing the regulations that put city-owned property and industrial areas at the top of the list for preferred cell tower locations and residential neighborhoods at the bottom.
The rules under consideration in Columbus follow a model ordinance from The Center for Municipal Solutions that can be tweaked to meet individual client’s needs.
Naumann, who is based in Omaha, said Douglas, Saunders and Sarpy counties in Nebraska and Yankton, South Dakota, used that model to create their wireless communication ordinances and Norfolk is currently in the implementation process. The consulting group has worked with more than 1,000 communities and counties in 38 states.
The ordinance requires wireless companies to provide an $8,500 escrow when submitting an application that’s used to cover the group’s consulting fees, leaving no expenses for the city.
It also boosts the cost for a special use permit for a cell tower from around $100 to $3,000 for a new facility and $1,000 for a modification or co-location. The permit is $200 per node on small-scale projects.
A public hearing would be held as part of the permitting process, with property owners within 500 feet of the project site notified ahead of time.
Moss & Barnett encouraged the city to avoid using the “cookie-cutter” ordinance, arguing that The Center for Municipal Solutions is using the burdensome rules to pad its bank account with consulting fees.
“We encourage you to refrain from acting upon the speculative promises of a third-party company,” the law firm wrote while offering to work with the city on a revised ordinance.
Naumann told city officials in January, “The wireless industry is not going to like us.”
He’s right, but local officials don’t seem concerned.
“I can read between the lines,” Councilman Ron Schilling said in reference to the email from Moss & Barnett.
Wireless companies would prefer to keep the city out of the loop on some aspects of tower siting, he said, and this ordinance prevents that.