Small cell towers.jpg

Small cell towers like the one pictured here from College Station Texas.

Cell phone towers will no longer be allowed in Baton Rouge neighborhoods — at least for the time being — the mayor's office announced Thursday.

AT&T is building "small cell" towers, which resemble lamp posts and are designed to increase cell phone signals.

At a practical level, telecommunications are mostly governed by federal law, said Darryl Gissel, the city-parish's chief administrative officer. He said East Baton Rouge has approved approximately 150 permits for new small cell towers, but he was not sure Thursday how many had been built. Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelvin Hill said the city-parish is trying to work with the company to make the poles as unobtrusive as possible.

Small cells are designed to boost reception in a tight area and are a presumed precursor to 5G coverage, though AT&T's corporate office declined to comment when contacted Thursday. Local spokesman David Aubrey told a neighborhood meeting Thursday evening that the new equipment is necessary to roll out AT&T's 5G network to support increasing use of mobile devices to support services such as professional social media and streaming television.

AT&T has built dozens of towers around Baton Rouge. The company began in downtown but expanded into neighborhoods in recent months. Some wireless users are excited for the potential for quicker service, while other residents have complained the new towers are an eyesore which lowers property values.

The towers generally resemble lamp posts, but with a shoe-box-sized attachment instead of a light. The city-parish has allowed them to be constructed in public rights of way, including the sidewalks in front of people's houses.

"Due to the concern expressed by residents regarding AT&T’s small cell towers, I have requested that AT&T temporarily suspend construction of the towers. AT&T is in the process of developing a communications process to make property owners aware of investment plans in the community that may involve the public right-of-way adjacent to their properties," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wrote in a Thursday statement.

Gissel said the company has given no indication how long it expects to observe the stop-work order, and AT&T's public relations staff declined to comment when contacted Thursday.

Hugh Odom was an attorney for AT&T for approximately 10 years. Now he owns a consulting company that represents landowners contacted by telecommunications companies about land leases.

The Metro Council last year set a $250 annual lease fee, though there was some dispute whether the amount was high enough. The city-parish should revisit that arrangement every few years to evaluate whether each site is worth more money, Odom said.

Dozens of south Baton Rouge residents attended a Thursday evening meeting of the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations that discussed cell towers. The meeting was held at the Jones Creek Branch Library, and Tara, Sherwood Forest and Westminster were among the neighborhoods represented.

Gary Patureau, of the Tara Civic Association, said the local government has more authority over local rights of way than municipal authorities have indicated. He said property owners are still considering a lawsuit to compel AT&T from building towers near homes. 

Metro Councilman Matt Watson called the city-parish's handling of AT&T's coverage a "fiasco." He blamed his Metro Council colleagues for being too permissive when laying out the city-parish's lease agreements.

Paul Sawyer, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, attended Thursday's meeting and later said in a text message to The Advocate that "the robust participation and interest shown here at this meeting makes it pretty clear that this was not handled well.

"There needs to be much more transparency and public engagement before moving forward. Poles in front yards. Poles at homes that just rebuilt from the 2016 floods. No notification to or input from homeowners," he said. "5G is an important national priority, but even a national priority demands local input. The law allows for collaboration in design and placement. We're only now confronting the frustrations of just one carrier. More will come. We need to get in front of this now."

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.