Getting a cell tower placement approved may soon be a more predictable process for telecommunications providers in Georgia.
A new bill provides uniform standards local governments must adhere to when evaluating cell tower citing applications. The legislation mandates that cities must make a formal, written decision about an application within 150 days.
Sponsored by Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, House Bill 176 marks a compromise between the telecommunications industry and local governments. Similar legislation was shot down last year by municipalities over various procedural and zoning issues.
In an interview with Government Technology, Parsons said that “there’s always been a problem” with some local governments over cell tower siting issues. He explained that while some cities and counties processed siting permits “pretty quick,” some were slow and others used the process to raise money.
Parsons added that the longer a city held up a permit, the more money it made the consultants used by cities and counties on the issue.
“If they hold one up, from the consultant’s point of view, the more money they made,” Parsons said. “For the cities, they could actually hold this over the industry’s head and sometimes drive these things to their own property – to public property – and then there was no limitation on what they could charge a cellular company for rent to put [a cell tower] there.”
Local governments addressed the industry's financial concerns by agreeing to a number of provisions in HB 176 that restrict cities and counties from overcharging for the review of siting applications, or the inspection of new or existing wireless facilities.
The Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), which represents the state’s cities, went neutral on the bill after deliberations with both Parsons and telecom providers. According to a fact sheet on the GMA’s website, under HB 176, local governments may not:
Charge a fee for review or inspection of a new or existing wireless facility that is more than the actual cost of providing the review or inspection; Charge more than $500 to review an application for a collocation or modification to an existing tower; Charge an applicant a fee based on a contingency fee arrangement; Charge a rental or license fee to renew or extend the term of a lease for a wireless facility on local government property that is in excess of the fair market value for rental or use of similarly situated property.
Marcia Rubensohn, legislative affairs counsel for the GMA, told Government Technology that the difference between last year’s legislation and HB 176 is that this year’s bill deals more with process and fee issues, as opposed to zoning provisions.
“Our goal in this legislation was to ensure that decisions about siting new cell towers were left at the local level and expanding the footprint and height of existing towers,” Rubensohn said. “The old legislation required automatic approval of a modification of a cell tower if it did not exceed a certain threshold … this legislation that has passed does not include that provision. That’s one of the big differences between the old bill and this one.”
HB 176 passed both the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate, and now awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision. Parsons said his gut feeling is that Deal will sign the bill, noting that Deal was supportive of the efforts made regarding cell tower siting last year.