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Communities Scramble To Head Off 'Atrocious' Cell Tower Bill

Philip Brookes

The cities of West Lafayette, Crawfordsville and Lafayette are among those in Indiana which have begun legislating to head off the effects of a bill giving sweeping new rights to cell phone companies.

The law, which Gov. Eric Holcomb has until Thursday to sign, allows so-called micro cell phone towers to be erected so cell phone signal strength doesn't wane as often.

West Lafayette Development Director Erik Carlson told his city's Board of Public Works Saturday that the technology is valuable, but that it has its share of problems.

The Board had convened what it called an "emergency" weekend meeting to head off some of those issues, which Carlson and Mayor John Dennis say include questionable aesthetics and the likelihood the towers would be built primarily in densely-populated areas.

In a unanimous vote, the Board voted to use a provision in the bill establishing an underground utility district, which will give local lawmakers more say over future permitting and construction.

Carlson says the micro towers are designed to take some of the burden off of the traditional 100-to-200 foot towers which are meant to send cell signals as much as ten miles away. He says when urban areas create pockets of heavy data usage, the large towers sometimes become so taxed they can't send the data as far, so cell phone companies now hope to put up the micro towers to serve customers in those high-traffic regions.

However, the bill -- which was passed with little fanfare near the end of the 2017 Indiana General Assembly session -- only gave cities until May 1 to write their own rules to restrict where and how cell phone companies to put up new towers. That sent a number of cities into a sprint to meet the deadline.

Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton, speaking on WBAA's "Ask The Mayor," calls the bill "atrocious."

"They want a way to circumvent any local input and to do this as cheaply as they can," Barton says of the telecom companies who might put up the towers.

Dennis says he only heard about it a couple days ago from lobbyists with Accelerate Indiana Municipalities -- formerly known as the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns -- who work on behalf of municipal governments at the Statehouse. He says that's particularly odd because Tippecanoe County State Senator Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek) is the lead author on the bill.

Dennis says he may call Gov. Holcomb this week to ask the state's first-term executive to veto the legislation.