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Telecommunications bill causes concern for local officials

Hastings representatives met with legislators to express their concerns over a small cell wireless bill making its way through the Legislature. Pictured, from left, are Sen. Dan Schoen, councilmembers Tina Folch, Lori Braucks and Joe Balsanek, and City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee. (Submitted photo)

A bill moving its way through the Minnesota Legislature has local officials worried they might soon see their authority over public rights-of-way reduced.

As described by the League of Minnesota Cities, "The original bill would allow small cell wireless equipment to be placed on utility poles, signs, kiosks, traffic signals, light poles or arches without the ability of a city to adequately apply its zoning authority. Additionally, it prevents cities from negotiating rates, permit timelines and maintenance as it relates to the installation of emerging wireless infrastructure."

The bill (HF 739) describes a "small wireless facility" as a wireless facility with an antenna inside an enclosure that is no larger than 6 cubic feet and with all other associated wireless equipment taking up a maximum of 28 cubic feet. The bill would authorize telecommunications companies to construct, maintain and operate small wireless facilities on existing support structures within the public right-of-way, and also stipulates that local governments must not require zoning approval for small wireless facilities in the public right-of-way.

The language has local leaders worried that, if approved, the bill would limit the city's authority to regulate and manage local zoning. Hastings City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee summed up her concerns in a letter to the mayor and City Council last week.

"The industry is pushing a nationwide agenda which would remove local authority to regulate access to our public rights-of-way," she wrote. "Essentially, these unregulated providers would have unfettered access to this public asset. We do not object to the technology; we object to having our zoning and local control being taken away, especially for an unregulated industry."

"This bill would significantly hinder a city, county or township from placing restrictions on the installation of new poles or the use of existing public utility poles (including light poles and signal poles) for small cell sites within our right-of-way," she wrote later in the letter. "It also restricts our ability to recover costs and fees from the party that would use our poles for their equipment."

Hastings officials have reached out to make sure their concerns are heard. Mayor Paul Hicks wrote letters to Rep. Tony Jurgens and Sen. Dan Schoen regarding his concerns about the legislation. Council members have also spoken up at the League of Minnesota Cities' Legislative Conference for Cities. Additional letters to Jurgens and Schoen have been drafted, and the council plans to adopt a resolution at its April 3 meeting officially opposing the industry language in the bill.

The League of Minnesota Cities is also working to change the bill's text. The league has suggested alternative language that "incorporates wireless providers into current law while retaining local decision-making," according to a March 20 league article.

The Senate version of the bill (SF 561) has stalled, as it missed a critical deadline. However, the House version is still making progress, and late last week, it was added to an omnibus jobs and energy bill.

"This fight becomes more difficult now that the language has been added to an omnibus bill and has the potential to get lost in all of the other bills added to the larger bill," Mesko Lee wrote.

During their visit with Schoen and Jurgens last week, Hastings representatives asked legislators to block the small cell wireless bill. They also asked for support for funding for roads and a bonding bill that would help fund repairs to Hastings City Hall.