The sudden appearance this week of a handful of new cell-phone towers in Independence – apparently without public notice or even a heads up to the city – is causing heartburn for local officials and others.
“There’s no oversight locally, and there’s no oversight at the state,” City Council Member Scott Roberson said Friday.
The towers have appeared in public rights of way on Ringo Road and at the Cracker Barrel at Lee’s Summit Road and Interstate 70.
And one went up Thursday next to the sidewalk in front of the Drumm Farm Center for Children, whose executive director, Brad Smith, said there there was “no city involvement, no notification.” He said the pole is about 120 feet tall.
On Thursday, Smith took to Facebook. “I have spent most of the day trying to determine who is erecting a cell tower directly in front of Drumm Farm,” he posted. “We had no notifications of the project and we are confused and disappointed that this is occurring. We are not opposed to progress but it sure would be nice for a business to talk to us about their plans and needs.”
By Friday, he had some answers. He said a California company, Mobilitie, is putting up the towers. It bills itself as the largest privately held telecommunications infrastructure company in the country. Industry analysts have identified Sprint as a major customer of Mobilitie, which puts up what are called “small cells” to expand a phone carrier’s capacity.
Smith came to Friday morning’s Independence Chamber of Commerce legislative briefing and criticized a law that the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed three years ago that apparently opened the door for this change.
“And the party of private rights allowed it to happen. It’s not right, and you need to fix it,” Smith told legislators.
That law, the Uniform Wireless Communications Infrastructure Deployment Act, took away local control of cell-tower siting and permitting. Legislators said at the time that some cities – none in Eastern Jackson County – were making that process too difficult and using it to make money off the phone companies.
One legislator, Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, noted Friday that phone companies face a constant need to add capacity as phones do more and soak up more bandwidth.
“The conflict is people want broadband buildout,” he said.
But Roberson and Mayor Eileen said the 2014 law leaves cities powerless and even leaves them with the hassle and expense when a tower is abandoned and has to come down.
Smith said it’s causing a financial problem, too. Drumm Farm has two towers on site – the neighbors were notified and a process followed, he said – and phone companies pay for that. It’s about 5 percent Drumm Farm’s revenue, he said. Now those phone companies will have no incentive to stick with those towers if other towers can go in any right of way.
“This kind of thing is going to pull money out of places like Drumm Farm,” he said.