5/14/18: PLANNING: REMEDYING POOR CELL-PHONE SIGNALS IN THE TOWN’S RESIDENTIAL DISTRICTS: Installing New Poles for Small Cells in Public Rights-of-Way

smallcellscalifornia
The Town of Southern Shores aspires to the San Francisco design (at left) of small wireless facilities, not the Oakland, Calif., design.

Do you have a problem with dropped cell-phone calls in Southern Shores? Do you suddenly lose your cellular signal when you enter certain areas in town? Do you go crazy with frustration in cell-phone dead zones?

If so, the State of North Carolina has enacted into law a systemic remedy for your signal problems, and the Town of Southern Shores has amended its zoning ordinance to enable wireless telecommunication facilities locally that further the State’s goal of “deploying” new technologies so that all N.C. citizens have access to them. The State is particularly interested in ensuring that police and other first responders have reliable wireless infrastructure.

In addition to a hearing Monday, at 5:30 p.m. on ZTA 18-07, about non-conforming lots (see the Beacon’s 5/11/18 post), the Town Planning Board will take up Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 18-06, which addresses the installation of new poles in town for the placement of small cells, also called small wireless facilities.

Understandably, residents on the streets where such poles are erected will want to know how their design, location, look, and other issues affecting them and their environment can be controlled. The Town has only limited authority in this area. The zoning law favors the wireless provider, such as Verizon, who applies to the Town for permission to install the facilities.

Small cells are low-powered cellular radio access nodes that often sit atop, or extend out from, existing utility poles, such as telephone poles or street lights. In the extensive zoning changes that the Town enacted earlier this year—amending Town Code sec. 36-175 to conform to the State’s mandate on wireless telecommunications facilities—it authorized wireless providers to “collocate” small cells along, across, upon, or under any town rights-of-way.

The Town also permitted wireless providers to “place, maintain, modify, operate, or replace associated poles, city utility poles, conduit, cable, or related appurtenances and facilities along, across, upon, and under any town rights-of-way.” The Town required any such placement, modification, replacement, etc., associated with the collocation of small wireless facilities within rights-of-way, to conform to the following:

1) Each new utility pole and each modified or replacement utility pole or city utility pole installed in the rights-of-way shall not exceed 50 feet above ground level.

2) Each new small wireless facility in the rights-of-way shall not extend more than 10 feet above the utility pole, city utility pole, or wireless support structure on which it is collocated.

ZTA 18-06 now imposes further specifications and restrictions on the installation of all new poles in residential districts. I will quote it below, after providing a little more background.

***

The Town’s amendments to Code sec. 36-175 track the State’s language in its wireless telecommunications facilities act, found in the N.C. General Statutes at sec. 160A-400.50 through sec. 160A-400.57. The State is complying with federal law, just as the Town is complying with State law. In its 2017 session, N.C. General Assembly made numerous substantive changes to the State wireless facilities act, which became effective July 21, 2017. The Town’s actions this year have been to update its zoning ordinance accordingly.

These changes are not yet available in the online Town Code that can be accessed through the Town’s website. I obtained them by searching on the Town website for “ZTA 18-02.” Where once the Town Code addressed wireless telecommunications sites and towers, it now addresses wireless telecommunications sites, facilities, and towers.

(Some of you have undoubtedly noticed that the cell tower erected at the N.C. Hwy 12-Duck Road split in the road did not cure your dropped calls. Taylor Woolford, manager at the Verizon store in the Marketplace, told me that many Verizon customers who jumped to AT&T when the tower went up have returned to Verizon because of continued signal problems. He described a dead-zone area from the cell tower north to the intersection of Duck Road with E. Dogwood Trail and then west into the dunes and woods. Typically, he said, signal problems occur with calls outdoors, not indoors.)

The word “facility” is best understood in this context by people who work in the wireless industry. The Town Code defines a “communications facility” as “the set of equipment and network components, including wires and cables and associated facilities used by a communications service provider to provide communications service.”

The Code definition of a “wireless facility” is even broader. It includes “equipment at a fixed location that enables wireless communications between user equipment and a communications network,” including such items as radio transceivers, antennas, wires, coaxial or fiber optic cable, regular and backup power supplies.

The Town Planning Board unanimously approved (4-0, one person absent) ZTA 18-02, incorporating the State’s language on collocation of small wireless facilities, on Feb. 20, 2018, and the Town Council did the same, 5-0, on March 6, 2018.

At the Town Council hearing, Planning Board Chairman Sam Williams reportedly said that the Board did not fully support ZTA 18-02, but realized it had no choice but to approve it. According to the meeting minutes, he also stated that the Town has a small measure of control over 1) the fall zone; 2) design standards; 3) stealth concealment standards; and 3) historic preservation requirements.

When another homeowner asked in public comments about the frequency that the small cells will use, Andrew Darling, who is past president of the Outer Banks Repeater Assn., answered that small cells generally operate at a lower power than radio power, which can cause damage to human cells at high frequencies.

In a text message, Mr. Darling recently informed me: “Cell companies are quietly buying broadcast TV station frequencies, and so all frequencies will be in service from VHF through UHF with smart towers.”

He further stated: “There has been no evidence of problems with smart cells or regular towers.”

According to its website, www.obraobx.com, the Outer Banks Repeater Assn. is an organization of volunteers who provide communications in times of public need, such as during disasters, and who encourage amateur radio operators to be ready for emergencies.

***

If you Google “photos of small cells facilities” or “photos of small wireless facilities,” you will see an assortment of poles with attached equipment that appears to be slick and streamlined, almost imperceptible, at one end of the design spectrum, and ugly and bulky, very obtrusive, at the other end. (See the extremes depicted in the photos above.)

Mr. Woolford describes the small cells he’s seen as “dome antennas” that are “very discreet.”

“If you weren’t looking for them, you wouldn’t notice them,” he said.

Town Planner and Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett has been in contact with a contractor working for Verizon to collocate small cell wireless facilities on eight existing utility poles in town.

Here is how ZTA 18-06, which the Planning Board will consider next Monday, proposes to further regulate the installation of new poles:

1)      No new utility pole may be installed for the principal use of wireless facilities if a pole exists within twenty (20) feet of a desired location.

 2)      The minimum distance of a new pole from any residential structure shall be at least 150% of the pole height and shall not be located directly in front of any residential structure located in a residential zoning district.

 3)      Along streets and within subdivisions where there are no existing utility poles (all underground utilities), wireless facilities may be attached to street lights in the public right-of-way.

 4)      New poles may not be erected in a residential area solely for wireless communication equipment attachment unless the [wireless provider] applicant has demonstrated it cannot reasonably provide service by:

a. Installing poles outside of the residential area;

b. Attaching equipment to existing poles within the right-of-way; or

c. Installing poles in rights-of-way not contiguous to parcels used for single family residential purposes.

If you have any questions about the placement or construction of small-cell wireless facilities in your neighborhood, I suggest you attend the Planning Board meeting. The Beacon will report on the hearing and on the Board’s decision. The Town Council will likely receive the Board’s recommendation and hold its own public hearing on ZTA 18-06 in June.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 5/14/18; updated 5/16/18

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