Northeast Joco

Prairie Village raises concerns on cell towers, but eases restrictions

A new state law making it easier for wireless phone companies to install cell towers and other telecommunications equipment along city streets is getting poor reception from the Prairie Village City Council.

Council members on Monday approved changes to the city’s ordinances that remove many of the hurdles the city imposes on companies seeking to locate wireless structures in a city right-of-way.

But without those restrictions, council members said, a wireless company could conceivably build an 80-foot cell tower or a bulky utility cabinet anywhere it wants, with residents having little ability to object.

“That’s what we’re dealing with...we could have cell towers, if it’s in the right-of-way, in someone’s front yard,” said Mayor Laura Wassmer.

The new law, which the Kansas Legislature passed and Gov. Sam Brownback signed earlier this year, is designed to make it harder for local governments to interfere with the siting of telecommunications infrastructure. Lawmakers said the law was necessary to increase citizens’ access to broadband and to boost wireless technology’s benefits to the state economy.

Prairie Village joins several other cities in Johnson County that have recently raised concerns about the law.

Under the law, cities can no longer require that a wireless company prove a business need for the new equipment or evaluate an application based on other potential sites being available or require multiple companies’ equipment to share space at the same location. They also can’t impose “unreasonable” requirements on what the equipment looks like or how it’s shielded from public view.

Councilwoman Courtney McFadden, who works with AT&T and recused herself from voting on the changes, pointed out that the law passed by a wide margin in the Legislature. She said wireless carriers aren’t planning to use the new law to build cell towers in people’s yards but instead want to install so-called “small cell facilities,” which are wireless antennas that can be added to existing streetlights and telephone poles to boost the wireless signal in an area.

She said those small cell facilities will allow carriers to build denser networks without the greater disruption of adding full-fledged cell towers.

“There are good things about this,” McFadden said.

The council did add two conditions to the revisions to its right-of-way ordinance:

▪ Wireless carriers could add antennas and other equipment to an existing streetlight or other structure, but all other newly added equipment, such as utility boxes, would need to be located underground to be out of sight.

▪ Boxes could be built above ground if they were small enough to be generally allowed under subdivision regulations. Owners of larger boxes, however, would either build underground or request a special permit from the city planning commission.

Some council members recommended waiting to add further limits based on recent ordinances passed by officials in Overland Park, Merriam and Shawnee.

“There may be some other things that we’re not thinking of that other cities have thought of that might be permitted here,” said Councilman Eric Mikkelson. “This is a massive grab of local control again by our state legislature, and I’d like to resist that by all reasonable legal means necessary.”

City Attorney Catherine Logan, however, encouraged the council to approve some revisions and come back with additional changes on utility boxes at future meetings. She noted that the law went into effect on Oct. 1, and if the council waited too long and a company submitted an application for building in the right of way, they would have little control.

The revised ordinance goes into effect Oct. 11.

Other business

The council voted 10-1 to approve a $26,540 engineering study for removing low-water crossings at Delmar and Fontana streets that flood during heavy rains.

City officials have shelved previous studies on the crossing because of resident opposition to changing the streets. Public Works director Keith Bredehoeft said the city has an obligation to make sure city-maintained streets are safe and that he wants to remove the crossings. However, he said the council would have to make the final decision. The new study is necessary to apply for state funds to help with the project.

The council also voted 10-1 to increase the fees it charges for building permits or reviewing building plans by up to 15 percent.

Building code officials said the city hasn’t updated its fee structure for many years and is now one of the cheapest in the area, which they said meant the city often is charging less than it costs to provide a service. The increase actually reflects the city adopting the International Code Council Building Valuation Data Table, which is used by several other area cities in calculating their fees.

David Twiddy: