When it comes to dealing with cell phone towers and other wireless telecommunications facilities that began to pop up around the city earlier this year, Independence might have more leg to stand on than city leaders thought.
The city law department has contracted Healy Law Offices in Springfield, Missouri, which specializes in utility regulatory law, to help draft ordinances that allow the city to have some say in the construction of wireless facilities.
The monopoles that appeared earlier this year in public rights of way – courtesy of California-based Mobilitie, which constructs wireless facilities for providers such as Sprint – raised plenty of eyebrows, perhaps none more than the one directly in front of Drumm Farm on Lee's Summit Road. Wireless attachments to utility poles also have appeared, as providers want to “densify” their coverage and 5G network speeds – the newest high-speed development – available to more customers.
Independence city officials had been operating under the idea recent state law had stripped virtually all local control, but as attorney Penny Speake told the City Council at Monday's meeting, “The reality is there is some wiggle room in those prohibitions.”
“When the (state) ordinances were enacted, 5G didn't exist,” Speake said later. “Technology changes so rapidly, and the law doesn't, that's why a lot of issues are still gray. With a historic district, the law is not really clear on what cities can or cannot do, and we want to make sure that cities can protect historic areas.”
The city's lobbying efforts in Jefferson City helped bring the issue into greater light and preserve local control, Speake said. However, Independence's ordinances need some updating to fully deal with telecoms, something city attorney Dayla Bishop Swartz realized and for which she brought Speake on board.
“It's going to take a radical change on how we do things,” Swartz said, “and it's going to require a lot of staff effort to get it done and implement it.”
“We have a lot of modernizing to do, our statutes weren't written for this type of technology,” Mayor Eileen Weir said, adding that the issue provides a good opportunity for the city and state legislature to work together.
“I think the city has the ability to have more authority over permitting than we currently have, and I feel like we’ve done a good job communicating with telecoms.”
Weir said the city needs to find a way to deal with the so-called “shot clocks.” Those would be the time frames that – by state law – a city has to consider a wireless permit, and raise an objection, before the permit is deemed automatically approved. In most cases, that is 30 days.
“It gives the telecoms a reason to behave in a less fair way,” she said.
Weir said she anticipates the City Council will see ordinances this summer on this issue.
Ideally, the city would work with companies to find agreeable locations for wireless facilities and notify citizens of what's coming, Weir said, and telecoms won't be allowed to simply walk away from an abandoned monopole or tower if they're no longer needed, leaving cities to possibly tear them down.
The wireless facilities might not look aesthetically pleasing, particularly in front of Drumm Farm, Weir said, but she agrees with Speake's caution against taking a not-in-my-backyard approach. After all, the wireless companies provide something in demand.
“They want to provide service to customers, and we want them to provide service,” Weir said. “We want our citizens to have best service on the marketplace, if we can come to an agreement on how we want our city to look and develop.”