City wants to protect viewshed from 5G installations

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Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.

The City of Whitefish is aiming to protect itself visually from a barrage of small 5G cell wireless facilities that could end up being installed by wireless carriers in the city’s public right-of-way.

A controversial new Federal Communications Commission rule allows for the installation of 5G wireless or “small wireless facilities” that include an antenna with wires running to box about the size of a backpack. They are often located on utility poles or side of a building spaced at frequent intervals.

City Attorney Angela Jacobs says the city is limited in its ability to regulate the small wireless facilities except primarily through some aesthetic requirements. She points out that the FCC rule limits the authority of local governments in regards to the 5G sites, including to deny installation.

“Why are we concerned,” she said. “Because they’re ugly and we’re concerned about the potential they have to be extremely unsightly especially in our downtown.”

5G or fifth generation is the next wireless technology by wireless carriers. It is faster than 4G, but it requires a greater density of installations. The small wireless facilities are typically installed in high demand areas and have a range of service measured in hundreds of feet rather than traditional large cell towers that cover miles.

Each provider will want its own facility installed to cover the same dense area, thus there may be several facilities in the same general area by different companies, according to the National League of Cities, “This can result in clusters of small cells that are visually unappealing and detract from the aesthetic of the community.”

Jacobs recently brought the issue before City Council during a work session noting that the city has already received phone calls inquiring about its regulations of 5G facilities. An ordinance creating a city small cell permit to review and regulate design standards for such facilities will still need to go before Council for a vote.

The FCC rule only allows for aesthetic requirements that are reasonable, but also to be published in advance, Jacobs noted.

“We want to be proactive about this,” Jacobs said. “This is coming, it’s just a matter of when.”

The FCC says the rule is intended to ensure that the United States “wins the global race to 5G to the benefit of all Americans” by deploying infrastructure at significantly more locations using small cell facilities. The rule eliminates “regulatory barriers that would unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services.”

City Planning Director Dave Taylor said he recently became aware of the issue at a conference because of concerns raised over how these facilities look, but also that they could be spaced 300 feet apart to provide coverage.

“Most of these would be installed on public infrastructure — street lights and power poles,” he said. “But it could also be on buildings.”

City Public Works Director Craig Workman said he was also recently alerted to the ruling.

“Small historic towns have gotten bombarded by this,” he said. “It allows companies to put a lot of things on the infrastructure and it can just [visually] decimate a downtown.”

A draft of the ordinance includes language that would place size restrictions on the wireless facilities, and encourage them to be located on already existing streetlights or utility poles. Any replacement of the city’s decorative streetlights would have to match the current lights, and stand alone poles would need to match as well.

Jacobs notes that many people have health concerns regarding the operation of the 5G facilities, but says the FCC rule does not allow cities to regulate or reject such facilities based upon health effects of radio frequency emissions as long as they comply with FCC limits.

The rule also caps the fees local governments can charge related to the 5G facilities at $500 for a single application that includes up to five facilities and an additional $100 for each facility. The city can only charge $1,000 for a new pole and is capped in what it can charge for recurring fees.

“They gutted our ability to negotiate,” Jacobs said, noting that the city last year inked a deal for an annual lease of $18,000 to locate cellular equipment in the Emergency Services Center.

The rule also creates a fairly short time period for cities to process 5G applications — 60 days for collocation on pre-existing structures and 90 days for new construction. If the deadline, which begins as soon as an application is submitted and not when it’s deemed complete, is missed the request is immediately approved.

Dozens of cities and counties have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the FCC rule. The suit is currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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