Council discusses 5G cell phone towers

March 12, 2019

HUNTINGTON - Huntington City Council members discussed an ongoing plan to bring AT&T 5G cell towers to the city, which would be placed throughout the neighborhoods without the council’s prior approval.

The Huntington Planning and Zoning Commission would only have control over how the towers look and to ensure they are not impeding traffic or pedestrians, obstructing the line of sight, and that they are compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

During his State of the City address last month, Mayor Steve Williams announced AT&T would bring 5G service to Huntington, making it the first in the state to have the technology. The technology is useful for first responders in high-density areas because if there is a disaster, first responders would have prioritized cell service.

Assistant City Attorney Ericka Hernandez presented members of the city’s Administration and Finance Committee with an ordinance to create design standards for the “small-scale” cell phone towers before AT&T places 30 to 40 towers across the city. The towers are smaller than regular “microtowers” that some cell phone providers use, but need to be placed closer together than other towers.

“Like down at the stadium, one carrier would have one microtower to cover that area,” Hernandez said. “Under this plan, they might have five or six antenna to cover the same area.”

Hernandez said the 5G technology is “highly, highly regulated” by the Federal Communications Commission. Because of this, municipalities do not have control over where the towers are placed on public right-of-ways. Municipalities only have the option to implement design standards before the towers are installed.

“We can require them to have all the components internalized. There’s one design model called the ‘slim stick’ that is basically just a black pole. It’s just there and doesn’t have anything particular on it,” Hernandez said. “We can require them to have a light feature or require them to have flower hangers or baskets, that sort of thing.”

The towers can’t be higher than 50 feet and need to be placed approximately 500 feet apart, which is the length of the average city block.

Because of FCC regulations, Hernandez said the city needs to implement design standards by April 15 or the city will lose the right to have any input on the designs. The Planning and Zoning Commission is awaiting council’s approval before creating the standards.

Several committee members expressed concern over the lack of control for tower placement. Committee member Mike Shockley said he trusts the Planning and Zoning Commission to develop standards to make the towers more attractive.

“The only reservation I have is there are still some neighborhoods and certain districts that are going to be against it,” he said.

Committee member Carol Polan agreed and said cell phone towers would not fit the aesthetic look of certain districts. The towers will generate $270 annually each for the 30 to 40 placed around town, which is approximately $10,800 a year.

“I just think it’s a whole lot of ugly for just $10,000 a year,” she said.

Committee members agreed to move the ordinance to full city council without making a recommendation in support.

During city council, Council Member Alex Vence voiced his support for allowing the design standards and said the technology is coming whether council members want it or not. It’s better to have a say in the design than to get hung up on details and lose that right, he said.

Council member Jennifer Wheeler, who also serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission, agreed and said she supports implementing designs.

Hernandez said because of FCC guidelines, AT&T could move the technology into the city whether the city wants it or not.

Council member Tonia Kay Page questioned whether AT&T would charge more for the service once it is unrolled in the city. Hernandez said the city would not have control over rates or fees. The ordinance was moved on for a second reading, which will be during the council’s March 25 meeting.

Also during the meeting, council members forwarded for second reading an ordinance in support of $1.6 million paving contract between the city and the West Virginia Division of Highways. The contract will include 33 roadways that were not paved during the fall 2018 season. The contract also adds 14 new roads identified by City Council members last month. The list of those streets has not been released.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.