Officials scramble over bill

Communities struggle to gain control of cell tower placement

Officials are scrambling to pass local laws that will allow them to keep some control over where poles that serve as cellphone signal boosters are installed on streets and in neighborhoods due to a new state law.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has until May 6 to sign into state law a bill that would give communications companies the all-clear to install utility poles known as small cell towers in any public right-of-way. But the legislation is retroactive, and gave cities, towns and county government just days to draft a local resolution, schedule an additional meeting, analyze and understand the proposal and approve it if they want to be able to have a say in where the poles are installed and how they look.

Companies have come to communities in recent years wanting to add poles, but officials and residents have resisted or wanted to put certain requirements in place, citing concerns about aesthetics, property values and public safety. In most cases, local communities have put in place restrictions regarding where the poles can be installed, how close they can be to other poles and how they should look.

Story continues below gallery

The state law approved in the session that just ended gives the companies the right to install poles that are up to 50 feet tall, with another 27 feet of equipment, to be placed 500 feet apart in the public right-of-way.

The only protection put in place for local communities to have any say in approving the poles was this caveat: communities may prohibit the installation of the poles in an area that is a designated district for underground utilities, and the district must be established before May 1. Companies can ask for a waiver, which is how communities could review the plan and put requirements in place.

So while Holcomb still could veto the bill, cities, towns and counties are scrambling to draft resolutions and call officials together for meetings. Greenwood and Franklin boards of public works and safety, the Johnson County Commissioners and New Whiteland, Whiteland, Trafalgar and Prince’s Lakes town councils are all meeting today.

Attorneys representing communities across the county called the situation unusual in that it gave local governments very little time to react. Most new state laws go into effect on July 1, giving people, communities or organizations that are affected by those laws an opportunity to respond in advance, said Stephen Watson, an attorney representing Trafalgar and Whiteland.

Most town councils meet once per month, and the deadline allowed little time to fully consider the new law and how best to respond, he said.

“It’s safe to say cities and towns are scrambling,” Greenwood city attorney Krista Taggart said.

The 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.

Small cell towers are in a limited number of communities at this time, but thousands are expected to be installed across Indiana in the coming years, according to Aim, which was formerly the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns. The organization encouraged communities to study its options and take action.

Franklin is considering designating the entire city as an underground utility district, with the exception of industrial property, city attorney Lynn Gray said. The city wants to take action so that officials can review requests to install poles. Under the new state law, the poles could go up on city right-of-way inside Franklin subdivisions and neighborhoods, Gray said.

Greenwood is also considering a broad underground utility district in order for the board of works to continue to consider requests to install poles on a case-by-case basis, Taggart said. The city wants to be able to consider the aesthetics and what fits the specific location, so that the residents aren’t stuck with whatever companies want to install, she said.

If you live in unincorporated parts of the county, such as portions of the Center Grove area, the county commissioners proposal would restrict small cell towers in certain rights-of-way, such as near major residential neighborhoods, county attorney Kathleen Hash said. Companies could go before the board of zoning appeals for a waiver, she said.

“But the goal is a balance between providing adequate cellphone service, ensuring public safety and protecting property values,” Hash said.

Whiteland and Trafalgar want to put in place restrictions that would maintain areas of the towns that are already developed with underground utilities, Watson said.

“The fewer utility poles you can have along roads, the lower the risk of someone going off the road and hitting a utility pole. That is a real and significant public safety concern,” Watson said.

Author photo
Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.