City council, neighborhood leaders speak out against cell tower bill

Local News

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — All nine members of Fort Wayne’s City Council have signed a letter asking Northeast Indiana representatives to reconsider proposed legislation that covers cell phone tower regulation.

The letter was signed by city council on Tuesday following the passing vote on House Bill 1164 in the Indiana House. In the letter, which was sent to State Senators Liz Brown (R-15), Dennis Kruse (R-14), Justin Busch (R-16), and Andy Zay (R-17), the council members argue that if the bill became law it would “take authority away from local city and county governments in regulating the placement of cell phone and other telecommunication towers in our local rights of way in cities, towns, and counties.”

“Let the city governments, the county governments, rural areas, and urban areas alike take a look at this and make the decisions themselves rather than a government far away in Indianapolis that really doesn’t know as much about the neighborhoods as we do,” said Councilman Geoff Paddock.

The Packard Area Planning Alliance (PAPA), which covers 18 neighborhoods in south central Fort Wayne, and the Southwest Area Partnership (SWAP), which covers the southwest quadrant of the city, have joined the city council in opposing it, specifically when it comes to the 5G cell phone towers. According to the city’s Right-of-Way permit office, Fort Wayne has about 100 small 5G cell towers that have been installed by one provider. That same provider submits between 10 to 20 new towers per week.

PAPA President Kody Tinnel said the installation is not the issue, as much as their placement and aesthetic are.

“They’re quite unsightly,” said Tinnel. “They really look much differently than the traditional infrastructure that we see in our neighborhoods. When you think about the historic streetlights and signage and things like that, they stick out like a sore thumb and we’re really concerned not only about aesthetics but the property value implications in our neighborhoods.”

Arline Nation, chair for the SWAP, holds a similar concern.

“We have a lot of really nice looking neighborhoods in the southwest quadrant from Sycamore hills to Waynedale to West Central,” said Nation. “We’d like to maintain their good looks as much as possible. Some of these cell towers can be 40 feet tall and they could be located within meters of each other. People who live in an area know what’s best for the area they live in.”

However, State Rep. Ethan Manning (R-23), who authored the bill, said he believes the council and neighborhood leaders have misunderstood parts of the bill. According to Manning, HB 1164 clarifies legislation that was passed in 2017 to address some of those control issues.

“What we’re doing there is just clarifying a law that was passed in 2017, and then adding additional notification to homeowners and a required collaboration on location and aesthetics,” said Manning. “We also deal with local permitting and right of way fees, making it easier and more streamlined process to get broadband projects, built on a local level.”

The legislation would require homeowners to be notified by mail if a cell tower was going up in or near their neighborhood. It also would have the cell provider work with the permit department and the neighborhood associations to determine where the towers go and how they look.

According to Manning, the clarifications were needed after the 2017 law, which allowed the cell towers to be added where above-ground utilities already exist because some communities circumvented the law.

“This bill does not invalidate existing underground utility area ordinances,” Manning said. “It just clarifies that if you already have existing above-ground utilities, you can’t retroactively say now this is an underground area.”

Manning said the goal is to increase access to broadband across the state in both rural and urban areas. He added that the state has so far paid $77 million dollars to do that, with plans to pay $250 million more.

“Even the FCC at the federal level has said that some burdensome local regulations are hindering the deployment of broadband,” Manning said. “That’s what 1164 is about, is making it easier to physically build the infrastructure that we need.”

However, the neighborhood leaders are also concerned that smoothing the path for companies to install the towers would make it easier for them to add towers, regardless of how the residents feel.

“We’re not inherently opposed to small cell towers,” Tinnel said. “We understand part of the movement towards better technology access includes that. We’re really concerned about where they are located, especially as it relates to residential areas. The telecom companies have been working for years to try to make it easier for them to just place these towers pretty much wherever they want without any pushback or buy-in from local stakeholders, including neighborhood leaders or local governments.”

Paddock said they believe it deserves a closer look because by regulating the towers at the state level because it prevents citizens from making their own on the decision when it comes to their community, otherwise known as Home Rule.

“We work here, we live in the neighborhoods, and there should be some review,” said Paddock. “Particularly on this particular issue before we go around and allow some of these communication companies to put the infrastructure in.”

The bill will next be presented in a Senate committee.

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