The Journal Gazette
Saturday, April 29, 2017 1:00 am

City fights law on cell structure locations

Effort to put utilities underground, buried

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne on Friday joined cities and councils throughout Indiana in pushing back against a law that would limit municipalities' ability to regulate the location of cellular equipment in the public right of way. 

At a special meeting of the Fort Wayne Public Works, the city of Fort Wayne joined South Bend, Mishawaka, Ligonier and others in creating or wanting to create an underground and buried utility district. The move comes in response to Senate Bill 213, the Indiana General Assembly passed April 21. The law allows mobile technology companies to install small-cell infrastructure in city rights of way without a permit or fee. 

However, the law gave municipalities only a week to establish a district to regulate where that infrastructure, typically large poles, is placed, City Attorney Carol Helton told the board. The deadline to designate such a regulatory district is May 1. 

“Without acting today, the city would be without any ability to regulate wireless support structures or small-cell infrastructure poles being placed in the right of way, up to 50 feet in height,” Helton said. “And keep in mind that small-cell infrastructure could go up to 120 feet in height.” 

Under the resolution approved Friday, the entire city will be designated an underground and buried utility district, Helton said. The district can be amended later to remove portions of the city, but no areas can be added after the May 1 deadline. The city wanted to “have been very thoughtful” when deciding which areas to include, Helton said, but the statutory deadline made that impossible. In fact, officials were working on an ordinance to address the issue when the law was passed. 

Utilities and wireless providers seeking to install structures within the underground and buried utility district will have to obtain a waiver from the Board of Public Works, Helton said. Under the new law, the district must allow co-location on existing poles and must allow utilities and providers to replace existing poles. The district must also provide a waiver process for companies and utilities that want to install new equipment. That waiver process has not yet been developed, Helton said.

“I think some of the neighborhood challenges have been that it's the installers and not the primary companies themselves,” City Utilities CEO Kumar Menon said. “It's third-party installers and that seems to have a communication gap between the homeowner and the company.”

Similarly, officials in South Bend and Mishawaka say while they encourage new technology, they want to retain some control over where the structures are placed for safety and aesthetics. About 100 cities and counties in the state have enacted or are considering enacting similar legislation, Helton said. 

The measure will not have to go before the Fort Wayne City Council for final approval.

Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D- South Bend, characterized the move as being “all about money” and argued that regulation won't necessarily hinder installation of new technology.

“They just don't want to spend money on installations that aren't hideously ugly,” Dvorak said. “Generally (the structures) are very ugly and people don't like antennae and utility sheds all over the place, but utility companies don't want to pay for other options that might be less objectionable.”

Responses to the bill reportedly shocked Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Lafayette, who authored the bill.

Hershman reportedly described the concerns as “ridiculous and short-sighted.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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