Mark McDermott

Council blocks three cell pole sites

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by Mark McDermott

AT&T’s two-year quest to install cell phone antennas on light and utility poles throughout the city to improve coverage hit another roadblock Tuesday night as the City Council moved towards denial of three out of four proposed sites.

The cell phone carrier, citing gaps in local cellular coverage, originally proposed 15 outdoor distributed antenna systems, known as oDAS. In 2017, eight were approved, and seven rejected by the council, who under federal law largely must defer to telecom companies siting such equipment on public right of ways if they can demonstrate a service need for the customers.

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The council in April passed an emergency ordinance intended to give residents the right of free appeal on aesthetic grounds and the city more power to control those aesthetics.

On Tuesday night, the Council exerted that control, directing staff to prepare resolutions denying three proposed sites: on Highland Avenue and 19th Street; and on N. Ardmore Avenue and 2nd Street; on N. Ardmore and 9th Street. The site on Highland was denied outright, while council signaled that the two on Ardmore would be acceptable across the street, in the Veteran’s Parkway.

One location was approved, a new street pole at Deegan Place and 14th Street, near American Martyrs Church.

Mayor Nancy Hersman and Councilperson Suzanne Hadley expressed concern that the city was over-exerting what limited control it has regarding the cell phone antenna placement.

“I just feel we keep pulling the rug out from under them,” she said. “AT&T does have the right…We are their customers. Some people say, ‘Well, Big Business doesn’t care about us.’ But we are their customers and we have many people coming to us saying you have to improve our coverage because I can’t call 911…There’s a balance here, it’s not just about, ‘Is it your backyard?’ They need to have coverage and we all rely on our cell phones.”  

Councilperson Hildy Stern said the proposed alternative placements provide exactly that balance.

“I don’t think we are saying we are going to deny,” she said. “We are looking to find another location…The balance is in everyone’s favor.”

Hadley expressed concern that the city was opening itself up to costly litigation.

“We can deny all we want, but we do need to follow the law,” she said. “I’m not an attorney, but my understanding is AT&T has bent over backwards in dealing with changes, and the law clearly favors the telecom company…In emails I’ve gotten, I ache for the people, but I say, ‘Look, I wish I could make you happy, but the city must follow the law. If the city does not follow the law, if we are sued and we lose, it’s incredibly expensive, and if we win, it’s still expensive.”

Councilperson Richard Montgomery said the proposed new poles in the parkway would actually improve public safety by providing better lighting in dark areas while still allowing AT&T to achieve its objectives.

“What a great idea,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

Councilperson Steve Napolitano said the city was well within its legal rights.

“All this stuff about lawsuits is sheer projection,” he said. “…It’s not against the law, what we are doing.”

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