Des Moines City Council approves small cellular antenna ordinance

By Jack Mayne

The Council approved by a 5 – 1 vote a draft ordinance that would allow the expansion of new low-powered cellular networks to provide cellular and data coverage to smaller geographic areas and that supplement the larger cell network. The lone opponent was Councilmember Matt Mahoney while Councilmember Jeremy Nutting was excused.

Several members voiced some opposition to the measure, but said they voted for it because small cellular towers were part of the future because of the huge surge in need for wireless communication brought on by handheld devices once considered telephones but now are mainstays to human life for exchanging information of all forms.

Many Council concerns
Matt Mahoney said he voted ‘no’ because he thought the small cell expansion was basically wrong.

“We should approve this, however, I am very concerned about the number of small cell sites that are going to be on poles,” Mahoney said. “I wouldn’t be surprised in the future if there is not one (cell antenna) on almost every pole.”

He indicated earlier the health effects of radio frequency waves is a concern of his.

“I think the science is still out there that contradicts each other and it could have long-term effects on our residents.” He also noted the possibility of a huge number of new requests.

“I said earlier that we should approve this, but I, personally am going to vote ‘no’ because of the protest of those very reasons because we need to send a message that what has been done to our city and the ability to do what we should have in these rights of ways has almost, I almost want to say, bought and paid for and I feel that is foundationally wrong.”

Buxton agrees but votes ‘yes’
Buxton asked a number of questions about standards which she said was to make certain the best regulations are initiated because “I am going to be the one out there when an angry resident” wants to complain and with questions.

She said she had some of the same problems as Mahoney, but “the reason I am not going to vote against this is because this was crafted for protecting our city. It’s coming whether we like it or not and if we get this done now … to give us absolutely as much power as we can possibly get to manage what is going to happen to us.”

Mahoney said he thought the staff and the consultant have done a good job about putting the measure together in the best possible way, and that he opposed the towers but not the ordinance.

Deputy Mayor Vic Pennington said his initial reaction was to vote against the measure, but that he would vote for it because, “only because the work the staff has done and our attorney’s comment tonight that we really need this.”

Mayor Matt Pina said, “We know the storm is coming so how are you going to best mitigate it?” Pina added he sympathized with Mahoney’s comments but that “I feel our role is not to protest, but to vote on what is most appropriate for the community.”

What are the antennas?
The small cell antennas will be attached to existing utility poles and have a range from 10 meters to a few kilometers. They are used by mobile cell operators to extend service coverage and increase network capacity as well as the continual demand for increased speed.

The city hired Scott Snyder (pictured, left) to guide the upgrade in highly technical communications technology. Snyder is a lawyer in the Seattle office of the law firm Ogden, Murphy, Wallace.

“Your development regulations deal comprehensively with large scale wireless communications facilities,” he said. Because of the vintage of their inception “did not anticipate that one of the major tools to allow the effective use of smart phones and other devices is through small cell deployment.” An additional problem with city regulations are the time limits on permitting the expansion of cellular service.

“Whether in your purse or pocket, that device is no longer a phone, its a computer and entertainment device and the amount of data that is used for video … and a wide variety of functions … has been growing exponentially,” Snyder said. The problem is that the large scale cell sites “are adequate combined with a cable backbone to provide the general infrastructure but there are gaps in the network,” Snyder told the Council.

“You can have bars on your phone, but you won’t be able to download a movie for your child to watch when they are in a restaurant,” Snyder said. The “macro sites” have holes in service that are filled by the coming “micro cell sites, to allow the proper use of the devices we are talking about.

“Macro sites,” the tall towers “that have been the backbone of the cellular industry … “are simply insufficient for a variety of reasons,” he said, so small cells are coming into use.

20 to 40 feet high
He showed a slide comparing an individual using a cell phone, the size of a new low power antenna on light and utility poles that are 20 to 40 feet high, and a giant main antenna now used in various locations that are 120 feet high. Snyder said there might be four small antennas affixed to a pole to give 360 degree service or just one or two for line of sight service.

The question comes up time and again around the region about how many different companies will want their own antennas on a pole that is in the public right of way. Some suggested that the move to underground utility facilities could be impeded by the need for small cell antennas located where there used to be disappearing light and phone poles.

Snyder added that the move back to poles to carry antennas is driven by “consumer demand and it enables both the existing and future uses of those devices” that people used to call cell phones used only to call and talk.

Can’t limit technology
But he did emphasize that the city can’t limit technology, or to forbid a company from trying to close the gaps in its technology. There can be no gaps in services, Snyder said.

“The city can’t discriminate among service providers,” he said, and the city will have to allow all .

The city can require that coverage gaps use the “least intrusive means” of closing gaps and it can regulate new poles in the right of way and utility pole over 60 feet high and can charge a ground lease fee.

The small cell antennas come in a variety of developing sizes and shaped, and must be separate on the pool from power supplies or other uses,” Snyder said. “Cities cannot exclude a specific wireless provider. You have to provide a level playing field.”

A city cannot dictate the technology that the carriers can use. That is interstate commerce subject to federal regulation and federal law requires that carriers make the determination of what kind of facility they want to use.”

Parks should be free
Resident Jim Langston, president of the Des Moines Historical Society, said that it’s not good that people had to pay to use Des Moines Beach Park.

“We have no real place in the downtown city of Des Moines where a child with parents or parents with young children can go to our beach and walk the sand, maybe pick up a sand dollar … to me that’s unacceptable, it isn’t just a little unacceptable, that is totally unacceptable that they have to pay to bring their children and their vehicles in there to park to take part in the thing that was free” to older generations of residents.

Langston said that the park should be open free to the public from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“I do understand about the drug problems that occurred earlier on …” but it should not be acceptable have to pay to be in the park.


2 Responses to “Des Moines City Council approves small cellular antenna ordinance”
  1. RedondoRick says:

    Glad to see Mr. Mahoney vote from the heart, not following his cohorts…

  2. Chris Clevish says:

    It’s a bit troubling to me that at least half of the council appears to oppose the expansion yet voted yes anyways “because the staff had done a good job”. I don’t have enough information to have an opinion either way but voting based on the quality of the work presented versus the issue at hand seems strange. Maybe it’s just the way the article is written.

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