State legislation could limit county control over cell towers

Cellphone companies have to follow new local rules regarding where they can place utility poles used to boost cellphone signals, but a bill making its way through the state legislature could take away the ability for local officials to make those decisions.

These poles, used to boost the signal of nearby cellphone towers, have become increasingly popular in Johnson County, with about a dozen being installed last fall mostly in the Center Grove area. In 2015, 10 poles were installed in Greenwood.

Without any rules regarding how tall these small cellphone towers can be or where they should be located, a county board had to individually review and approve each of the requests.

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The increasing demand for these structures prompted county officials to create new rules for unincorporated areas in the county, which the Johnson County Board of Commissioners approved earlier this month. Those restrictions limit these poles to being 50 feet tall and prevent them from being within 500 feet of a similar pole, within 75 feet of any street intersection and within 20 feet of any other utility pole. The poles are permitted in any street right-of-way. Outside of right-of-way the poles are not allowed in residential areas.

The goal with these new rules is to have a clear idea of where it is and isn’t acceptable to place these poles, commissioner Ron West said.

When some of the poles were considered last fall, concerns from residents focused on the poles being too close to intersections and in residential neighborhoods.

Because the poles are considered a public utility, the county can’t completely restrict them from being placed in road right-of-ways, West said.

A bill under consideration by legislators would put in place similar restrictions statewide, but would also remove the ability for county officials to make zoning and other decisions about these poles.

Johnson County commissioners said the state is overstepping it authority with this legislation.

“It has to stay with the local planning and zoning,” West said. “All of that stuff has to be coordinated with road improvements and development issues. For the state to take that away from the locals is asinine.”

County planning director David Hittle wrote a letter that the commissioners sent to state legislators outlining the county’s opposition to the bill, West said.

While having statewide rules for these poles isn’t bad, those rules shouldn’t completely remove the ability of local governments to make decisions, commissioner Kevin Walls said.

The bill was approved by the Indiana Senate in February and is set for a second committee meeting in the Indiana House of Representatives today. At the initial hearing, opponents and supporters testified about the bill. Any changes will be considered at today’s hearing, and if the bill passes in the House committee, it will go before all state representatives for a vote.

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Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.