City staff looks to regulate small cell towers

Ryan Wangman, Reporter

City staff introduced an ordinance last week to regulate the placement of small cell towers on utility poles in Evanston.

The proposed ordinance comes after Illinois municipalities saw a recent uptick in applications for the installation of small cell towers, when Evanston decided they needed more regulations in place. Mark Muenzer, director of community development for the city, said the ordinance would allow the city to effectively handle the increase.

A telecommunications company will come in and say, ‘We’re looking at Evanston from this street to eight blocks away, and it covers 20, 30 (or) 40 utility poles.’ So this gives us the ability to kind of look at that in an aggregate and review it,” he said.

The memorandum outlining the cell tower ordinance, crafted by Grant Farrar, corporation counsel, described small cell towers as “a relatively new technological advance installed in public right-of-ways.” The cells act as a small stand-ins for regular cell towers.

According to the memorandum, the towers are installed on utility poles, street lights or traffic signals located within utility easements or the public right-of-way.

At an Administration and Public Works Committee meeting in October, Farrar said the city had been receiving a lot of questions about the poles, both from city residents and other municipalities who had been noticing the poles as well.

The ordinance will aim to reconcile the “two competing interests” the city has concerning the poles, mainly the needs for functioning technology and safe infrastructure, Farrar said.

“Hopefully (it will) give a good roadmap for staff and for city council and proposed and prospective applicants as to what needs to be done, what some of the aesthetic safety issues that are in play,” he said. “We can bring a good comprehensive scheme that will hopefully have benefits across the board but also safeguard the city’s interest.”

Muenzer said the increase in small cell towers around Evanston would benefit  the community, giving some assurance that if the towers are too close to residential buildings, or are too large or not appropriately screened, the city would have power to negotiate deals with telecommunications providers. The community would also see more tangible, day-to-day benefits as a result of the ordinance, he said.

The actual placement of the small cell towers will improve reception throughout the community for residents, businesses (and) visitors,” Muenzer said. “We want to make sure that the community is able to take advantage of up-to-date communications (as much) as possible.”

The memorandum also detailed a process for proposed small cell tower applications.

With the process, telecommunications providers will submit cell tower plans to the city with specific locations designated; the Building Division of the Community Development Department will review the locations and then will decide on a course of action if the locations are on city-owned infrastructure.

As a result of this process and the potential for more and more cell towers to be built, Muenzer emphasized the importance of the towers being aesthetically appealing.

When you have them located at such heights and visibility, they need to be as contextual and blend in as much as possible,” he said.

The ordinance still has to be approved by City Council.

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