Hearing from homeowners and representatives of Baton Rouge neighborhood associations about the intrusiveness and feared health effects of 5G cell towers, Metro Council members and the city-parish administration committed Wednesday to refashion rules governing their placement in residential areas.
City-parish officials and Councilman LaMont Cole, one of the current law's chief sponsors, said in interviews Wednesday that the initial push in 2017 was to establish a framework to handle expected permit requests with the idea that 5G service would be coming to the downtown and commercial areas.
Adopted in September 2017 and amended in 2018, the permitting rules have allowed the utility poles to pop up in public rights of way in front of homes, sparking outcry from homeowners who say they were unaware of what was coming and had received little to no notice from providers.
AT&T is installing about two dozen small cell towers across downtown Baton Rouge to improve service, officials said Tuesday.
"As a councilman, and I'm not pointing fingers, I didn't do my job. Period. We got to do a better job, at least I do," Council Pro Tem Scott Wilson told other members Wednesday night during a public hearing on the small cell towers.
Darryl Gissel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, told the Metro Council that the mayor has directed her staff, along with Parish Attorney's Office, to work on revisions "with all diligent speed."
Broome, who was also a sponsor of the original law along with former Councilman Buddy Amoroso, wants the revisions back before the council as soon as July 24, though a vote wouldn't come until the next month, Gissel said.
So far, only AT&T had been installing the 5G equipment before the company agreed to a voluntary halt about three weeks ago at Broome's request.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Gissel said AT&T received 139 5G device permits before the halt occurred. The majority have been in commercial areas. About 39 have been permitted in residential neighborhoods.
Cox Communications is now ready to begin its own wave of installation, though the company has a different technology that can be installed on overhead wires, company and city-parish officials have said.
The comments from Gissel, Wilson and other members of the Metro Council promising changes Wednesday night came after prior discussions with residents and homeowners groups in recent weeks.
The Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations has formed a task force to develop possible revisions. Gary Patureau, who sits on the board of the Tara Civic Association and is leading the task force, sent Broome and the council members an email on Tuesday outlining their wishes.
The email calls for a new ordinance that would take into consideration the aesthetic effects on neighborhoods and several other criteria when locating new towers. Those criteria would include the effects on adjacent property values, consideration of alternative locations, possible co-location opportunities on existing structures and the possibility of requiring co-location in some areas to avoid proliferation of multiple towers.
Under the current ordinance, the cell provider turns in its permit to the city-parish and workers check aerial images for any conflicts but the city-parish is not empowered to consider aesthetic considerations, for instance. Gissel said a recent suggestion is that providers mark the location of future towers so workers can physically check it.
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The homeowners groups also want the ordinance to give residents within the vicinity of a proposed new tower to have advance notice before any new permits are issued.
"I think that in talking to most of you, y'all agree that we need to re-look at the ordinance," Patureau told the council Wednesday.
The task force email asserts that though the city-parish can't deny access to public rights of way under federal law, federal law does allow the city-parish to regulate how they are used.
The group has hired Madisonville lawyer Jim Bradford to develop a legal brief on the issue and to help the city-parish develop a revised ordinance.
"We do believe firmly that a lot more can be done with respect to the considerations with regard to the location of the towers and we're looking closely at that in connection with this legal research," Bradford said.
Asked if the city-parish has those kinds of powers under federal law, Gissel said earlier on Wednesday that was why Broome has asked for aid from the Parish Attorney's Office.
But Curtis Heroman, 36, an IT manager who worked on Broome's transition team, told the council it needs to hire a specialist with experience in telecommunications law, saying he offered the same suggestion in 2017 and 2018.
On Wednesday night, several residents also added their concerns that the 5G towers, embedded in neighborhoods where children and the elderly live and play, could pose health effects of some kind and called for tighter regulation of their placement through changes to the ordinance.
"It really needs to be changed. Because if I can't say it clearer than what I'm saying right now, right now it is just wrong, just wrong," said Cherry McCullough, a board member of the Villa del Rey Citizens Association.
Cell phone towers will no longer be allowed in Baton Rouge neighborhoods — at least for the time being — the mayor's office announced Thursday.
In an interview, Councilman Cole said he feels the 5G service represents a progressive step aimed at making Baton Rouge a more attractive place to work and live. At the same time, Cole acknowledged that the first iteration of the ordinance and its later revision in 2018 could have been better.
“We were right on pace about the technology, but in terms of the planning and implementation, we probably could have looked at something a little different,” sad Cole, who promised Wednesday night to work on a better ordinance.
In a written statement, AT&T pledged to continue to work with Broome, other city officials and residents and explain how small cell equipment helps meet current needs and lays the foundation for 5G service in the future.
Sharon Truxillo, spokeswoman for Cox, said the company is not directly involved in the cellular business but provides cellular infrastructure for its customers. Cox is in partnership with Sprint, Gissel said.
In the Baton Rouge area, Cox already has robust infrastructure and can put in unobtrusive equipment, Truxillo said.
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