816 North

Some cities oppose state bills that would reduce their control over cellphone towers

Gladstone and Kansas City were two of several cities that sent representatives to Jefferson City last month to oppose a package of bills governing local regulation of cellphone towers and other telecommunications equipment.

The cities fear — and the proponents agree — that the bills would reduce cities’ control over where and how companies could place antennas and other equipment used to transmit high-speed wireless data.

For instance, under the proposed laws, companies could add new antenna structures stretching up to 10 feet higher and/or 20 feet wider onto existing cellphone towers without city planning and zoning approval. Other features include deadlines for cities to act on requests for new towers, for additions to existing towers and for the use of municipal rights of way.

“What if they add an antenna 15 feet wide and it sticks out over a sidewalk? That’s what zoning looks at,” said Richard Sheets, deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League.

Six western Missouri cities — including Gladstone, Liberty, Lee’s Summit and Independence — successfully sued to block similar legislation passed last year, but backers are trying again this year.

They counter that the new laws would benefit wireless customers while intruding only minimally on the cities’ prerogatives.

For companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, the changes would reduce regulatory uncertainty and lead to more and better service for Missourians, said the Senate sponsor, Savannah Republican Brad Lager.

Consumers “want more wireless services faster than ever before,” Lager said, and his legislation would make it easier for companies to provide that.

“In other states that have provided this type of certainty and uniform processes, we’ve seen investments (in wireless service) dramatically increase,” he said.

The Missouri Municipal League testified against the bills before a Senate committee on Jan. 28. The league issued a statement the next day, saying the legislation would cause “a negative impact on the character of communities across the state.”

Nonetheless, the five bills were passed out of committee and then approved by the Senate as a whole. They await action on the House side of the Capitol, but Lager expects them to be approved there and then signed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

After all, he noted, substantially the same provisions passed and were signed into law last year.

In their lawsuit, the six cities alleged that lawmakers violated the state Constitution in 2013 by dealing with more than one issue in a single piece of legislation.

On Aug. 27, a Cole County circuit judge blocked the laws from taking effect as scheduled the next day.

Lager said that splitting the provisions into five bills addresses the constitutional problem, and he said they could be passed and take effect as soon as next month.

“With the consolidation of the industry, national companies are making decisions about where to allocate financial resources based on security and ability to execute,” Lager said.

He said his bills “establish timelines for the process; they don’t eliminate planning and zoning, or a city’s ability to limit towers where they shouldn’t be. But it does say they city has to act to approve or deny an application.

“Right now, they can sit on it. The bill … brings a level of certainty to the timeline.”

But the cities fear encroachment on their traditional authority to regulate commerce and preserve property values.

Sheets said his group’s opposition “is not about local control; it’s about local oversight … Oversight is what land use is all about. What your neighbor does affects your property value.”

He also objected to the proposed restriction of the application process for permits to build new cell towers.

The bill’s limit of “120 days is probably not an issue,” Sheets said. “But what if they come back and say 90 days? It’s a foot in the door to control local decisions.”

Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez said the city backs the municipal league on this legislation.

“We want to keep this authority so we can protect our neighborhoods,” Hernandez said. “This falls under very traditional zoning authority.

“Why is the state getting involved in that, and why for this one industry? We’re afraid that it will open the door for other industries.”