At a meeting on the minds, municipal and county leaders say cell tower placement rights are being usurped by HB 650, while area state legislators argue the need for better connectivity is more important.
The message to lake-area legislators attending a special Lake of the Ozarks Council of Governments meeting Monday morning was clear: local communities do not support pending state legislation they fear will eliminate or curtail their ability to regulate cell towers in their communities.
The meeting was called after several LOCLG members shared their concerns at a recent LOCLG meeting. The cell tower issue has become a hot topic among lake-area communities that are concerned that HB 650 would allow haphazard placement of cell towers within their communities, and would remove a community's regulatory ability.
Reps. Rocky Miller (R-124), David Wood (R-58) and Diane Franklin (R-123) attended the Monday morning meeting at the Osage Beach City Hall, along with several LOCLG members and area city officials. Osage Beach Mayor Penny Lyons and City Attorney Ed Rucker applauded the representatives' interest in their city's concerns.
"The mayor and staff were pleased that three state representatives took time to come in and have real and open discussion about such an important bill," Rucker said the next day. "We look forward to continuing this conversation and will be sending legislators more suggestions and concerns."
But their concern about the bill remains steadfast based on comments made during Monday's LOCLG meeting and at previous board of aldermen meetings.
"This bill inhibits a city's ability to regulate cell towers as we have in the past," Osage Beach City Attorney Ed Rucker said. "The process we have in place has worked, and has worked well."
If Osage Beach had not had the ability to require co-location, six new towers would have been erected within the city, he noted.
Rucker said the bill strips the city's authority to regulate placement.
"Where is the remedy when a tower is built and the good folks in the neighborhood have issues?" Rucker asked. "My local guys would not have the ability to remedy the issue."
Rick Purdon, chairman of the Laurie Planning & Zoning Commission, shared similar concerns. He's also on the board of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, which is spearheading the expansion of broadband service in its service area. He noted that Co-Mo would be using existing utility transmission lines, and not erecting towers.
"This bill would strip a city's authority for any control as far as location," he warned. "It would allow unfettered use of city facilities. We couldn't regulate where to put towers."
One of the specific concerns from the proposed legislation is that cell companies would not be required to remove an abandoned or damaged cell towers.
"Local government has a unique responsibility to public safety," Rucker told the legislators. "We wouldn't have much authority to look at the safety of a structure."
Camden County has not taken an official stand on the bill, but Presiding Commissioner Kris Franken also has reservations about its content.
"I understand some of the premise for the bill, but from our county's standpoint there are a few potential problems. If you read the bill in its entirety, it removes the county's planning and zoning authority to regulate placement of towers based on promulgation studies, which are studies that show the strength or quality of cell phone service in a particular area," he said. "This is important because using these studies eliminates building towers that will not improve service, promotes co-location of cell phone equipment, and minimizes the number of towers that dot the skyline of the county."
He noted that under the bill, no qualified entity would be double checking to see if towers are located in inappropriate areas such as fall zones of residential structures or airport fly zones.
"Camden County currently has a tower that was constructed without a permit in an airport fly zone in the northwest part of the county," he noted. "Although this was constructed without a permit, it is a perfect example of what can happen if there are no permits for legally constructed towers."
The county currently requires demolition bonds for towers so when they outlive their useful life or become dilapidated or unsafe, the funds are available to decommission them and for removal. Franken said the bill, if passed, would not allow the county to require these demolition bonds any longer, and could cause aging towers to become safety hazards or create a financial burden on local communities for their removal.
Both Miller and Wood said the intent of the bill is to allow expansion of wireless service into rural areas of the state, giving all residents access.
Wood, who lives in a rural area near Versailles, said "it's frustrating" when he has difficulty connecting to wireless service. He said the bill would expand broadband service into rural areas.
"We don't see growth in infrastructure without broadband service. We just don't see the growth," he said.
According to language in HB 650, the intent is to "encourage and streamline the deployment of broadband facilities to ensure that robust wireless communication services are available throughout Missouri."
Miller said he supports the bill in its present form, and believes the greater need to provide statewide broadband/wireless service outweighs the concerns of communities. He and Wood also believe the bill will not usurp a community's ability to regulate wireless towers. A city's planning and zoning regulations would take precedence, they believe.
"I feel all in all the expansion of broadband and WiFi benefits the citizens of Missouri and of Osage Beach," Miller said. "I'm happy with the bill and want to see it move forward."
He also said cities' claim they will lose control of cell tower regulation is "arguable."
An AT&T representative attending the meeting said "in terms of planning and zoning, this bill does absolutely nothing. You still have that control. Nothing in the bill affects land use or your authority."
Another objective of the proposed legislation is to regulate permit fees. According to the bill, a municipal governing entity could not charge any type of fee that is not required of any similar types of commercial development. Fees could not exceed $500 a co-location fee and nor more than $1,500 for an application for a new wireless tower.
Currently, Osage Beach requires a $5,000 permit fee for construction of a new tower, money that goes into the city's general fund. In addition, the city requires a deposit of $8,500 that is escrowed to help pay a consulting firm for telecommunications guidance. Whatever remains after paying the consultant is returned to the permit applicant.
"That cost is an inhibitor to broadband," Miller said. "It's beginning to look like the fees are an impediment to the expansion of broadband."
Rucker responded that the city hasn't had any complaints on the fees.
While Miller and Wood were steadfast in their support of the bill, Miller admitted there were parts of the bill with which he did not agree.
"This isn't my bill," he noted. "There are some parts I don't agree with, but for the greater good the bill needs to move forward. Some of your points are valid and well-taken."
Franklin said she sees the need to move forward.
"We all need economic development, and access to data is paramount. It's better to go forward than where we were. I recognize we may need to do some work that allows local control and still provides expansion of broadband."