Bill raises concerns about rights of way

The exercise of home rule by municipalities is in question after Gov. John Kasich signed Ohio Senate Bill 331 into law last month but state legislators are asking that local governments give one of its ideas a chance to succeed.

The bill, which in title describes the regulation of dog sales and prohibition of sexual contact with animals, also mentions the changes to Ohio’s minimum wage and the governance of micro wireless towers in public right of ways and on public buildings and properties.

“It was a lame duck session that just piled things that don’t relate to each other together. The single-purpose rule seemed to fly out the window,” said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram. “The huge concern is for example what happens if AT&T wants to put a huge tower in Sacra Via park? That’s disconcerting to every member of council. We’ve had requests like that as recently as June of 2016.”

Public rights of way are a type of easement reserved over lands for the use of transportation and public utilities planning. Right of ways in Marietta range from roadways and tree lawns to sidewalks, alleys and parks.

Marietta City Council members discussed the bill last month and were deeply concerned by its possible implications.

“As far as I’m concerned when George Washington and the other founders laid out this town they laid it out to have our right of ways under the control of the local government,” said Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd ward. “They laid it out to protect the burial mounds and the sacred parks and these towers wouldn’t go with the historic aesthetic of the town.”

Bertram further explained city official’s concerns.

“This law basically says that without any type of regulation, planning or permitting with the city, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint can come in and put their micro wireless poles up on anything the city owns and they don’t even have to tell us, let alone ask for permission. It gives an overwhelming right to the wireless companies to do as they see fit,” said Bertram. “The way that it’s being interpreted has us concerned. We’re working on a right of way and tower ordinance in the city so we can control our right of way. We need to be able to control what goes onto a sign, a street light, a building and in our parks.”

But Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said the intent of the law is to allow for greater bandwidth options for cell phones and smart cars as technology progresses and demand increases.

Events like the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival every September when cellular service can be knocked out in Marietta due to the high numbers of visitors using their phones are prime examples of instances when even rural areas of the state could benefit from greater connectivity, Thompson said.

Bertram said one weekend of cell phone issues isn’t enough to jeopardize local control.

“From the standpoint of local control on zoning and police power, the municipalities have the right to control their own right of ways and to take that control away and turn it over to private organizations without direction is a red flag,” he said.

But Thompson said flexibility and an eye on the future growth in rural communities in southeastern Ohio are what’s needed.

“Fundamentally it’s about how and where public communication systems are implemented and it is open to an abundance of telecommunications companies so that no monopoly of services is created,” said Thompson. “I think this is a positive move and if we want to be a pioneer city we need flexibility when it comes to technology.”

Several types of micro wireless facilities are being developed by communications companies to provide greater connectivity. That includes adding antennas and wiring to existing utility poles, adding small cells to tops and sides of buildings, adding macro cells or monopole towers on top of large buildings and adding distributed antenna systems to service specific geographic areas through nodes and a hub for fiber optics.

Thompson said while the demand for greater connectivity in cities like Marietta are great, cities like Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati would be the first to see the newest technologies.

“But I think our local right of ways should be under our jurisdiction and shouldn’t be dictated by Columbus,” said McCauley. “We’re a different kind of city.”

At a glance:

¯ New mini-wireless communications systems being designed by cellphone companies may bring greater bandwidth to cities through the placement of nodes and antennas throughout public rights of way.

¯ Senate Bill 331, signed by Gov. John Kasich last month, allows the installation and operation of micro and smaller wireless facilities in order to facilitate the deployment of advanced wireless service throughout the state.

¯ Municipality officials across the state are concerned with how these nodes will be regulated.