Mobilitie has withdrawn its request for permits to install 13 new cell towers on La Crosse right-of-way. But city officials and residents remained concerned Monday about the proposal, which the California-based company plans to reintroduce “as soon as possible” after meeting with community members.
The Newport Beach, Calif.-based company and its subsidiary Wisconsin Technical Networking LLC hope to place thirteen or fourteen 75-foot cell towers on city property reserved for utilities throughout the city. That would provide additional coverage for Sprint, according to a presentation to the city’s Board of Public Works during a special meeting Monday. The proposal raised questions of aesthetics, property values, health effects and possible effects on existing utilities and emergency services communications.
Senior government relations manager Bridget Sheehan and permitting manager Jay Wendt presented plans to increase cell phone data coverage for the nationwide provider by adding what they call “mini-macro facilities” to the area. They also anticipate a potential need for a 120-foot tower sometime in the future; however, plans are still tentative.
“Mobilitie does not speculatively build,” Sheehan said. “We’re not placing poles just to place poles. We are placing poles where this is a demonstrated need.”
The company withdrew its initial 13 requests to “provide a fresh start,” according to Sheehan.
“We wanted to put a good faith effort forward in working with the city of La Crosse,” she said.
Sheehan and Wendt said they hope to sit down with stakeholders to determine the details before restarting the permitting process. While the locations were chosen by Sprint to address failures in its network, those sites could be a problem for the city.
“Our locations are ideal for the customer and from an engineering perspective, but we understand that the proposed locations are not necessarily ideal for the city and for the residents,” Wendt said.
Wendt said the company was willing to talk about locations, heights, materials and other considerations and hopes to get the process moving forward quickly.
“We’d love to get the conversation going as soon as possible,” Wendt said.
To that end, Sheehan and Wendt met with representatives from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Gundersen Health System on Monday, before the meeting.
Despite the meeting, the university remains opposed to the installation of two new towers, especially after learning one is planned to be installed directly in front of Veterans Memorial Stadium, according to UW-L executive director of facilities Doug Pearson.
“UW-L strongly opposes the installation of these cell cellular antennas for safety, environmental and aesthetic reasons,” Pearson said.
Pearson said Mobilitie failed to demonstrate the need for the towers and what benefit it would provide to the city and the campus.
“We currently have cellular leases for AT&T and Verizon,” Pearson said, adding that Sprint walked away from the negotiations for a similar lease agreement. “We believe this is just another means of providing a market share without having to pay for the leases.”
If approved, Mobilitie would be required to pay fees to allow the city to recoup its permit processing costs; however, the city is prohibited from charging rent by state law.
Representatives of the La Crosse Common Council were also cool to the proposal, with Council President Richard Swantz concerned it could lead to additional pole installations in the right-of-way.
“I need to be convinced that this is in the best interest of the city and the taxpayers. I’m not,” Swantz said.
Swantz acknowledged additional data coverage would be useful for Sprint; however, he said he was concerned about the impact on the city’s economic development. Although additional cell coverage could be a draw, there are other considerations that go along with 75-foot towers proposed for residential areas.
“I’m just concerned that this could be a narrow piece, instead of an overall kind of vision,” Swantz said.
La Crosse city planner Jason Gilman said he was “a little alarmed” to see 75-foot towers proposed for residential areas and had never seen a request to place cell towers on public right-of-way like a utility prior to Mobilitie’s proposal. He asked Sheehan whether the company would consider less conspicuous applications.
Sheehan assured the board that Mobilitie would use existing utilities and intends to blend in with existing infrastructure wherever possible.
The city hired attorney Anita Gallucci of Madison to help navigate the tricky legal waters of the relatively new type of proposal.
“This is an issue that is facing cities across the nation, also across Wisconsin. Never before have we seen our rights of way used for cell towers,” Gallucci said. “It presents some unique and important issues for the municipality because when we’re talking rights-of-way, you as a municipality are charged with entrusting those rights of way to make sure they are there for public use.”
Gallucci asked Sheehan and Wendt to explain why Mobilitie wasn’t more proactive in providing the city answers to its inevitable questions before filing its permit requests.
Sheehan said the company balked at making the investment of traffic hazard and interference studies and structural analyses for poles before the final locations were set.