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This Verizon 5G cell phone tower, smaller in height than some others, is one of the newer cell phone towers in Baton Rouge, seen on May 9, 2019.

The Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations is nearing completion of a draft ordinance that would regulate the placement of 5G cell towers. The group hopes to take the proposed legislation to the East Baton Rouge Metro Council in February.

If approved, the nearly 40-page ordinance, currently a rough draft, would require telecommunications firms to provide advance notice of proposed structures to nearby property owners through mailers and signs.

The draft legislation would also ask firms to put a priority on placing 5G technology on existing utility poles or support structures. The proposal would only permit construction in residential areas as an option of last resort and includes a provision that would allow subdivisions and property owners to suggest preferred locations for placement of the towers.

The “small cell” towers, which generally resemble lamp posts but with a foot-locker sized attachment instead of a light, are designed to boost cellphone signals. AT&T began installing the towers in residential neighborhoods without notice in 2019, prompting an outcry from residents who complained they are unsightly and will lower property values.

The city-parish responded in May by asking the telecommunications company to cease new installations, and in June, the Metro Council agreed to refashion the rules governing the placement of the cell towers after homeowners complained about their intrusiveness and feared health effects.

The latest draft was written after months of discussions between the Parish Attorney's Office and lawyers hired by the civic associations. The telecommunications industry is expected to offer its own revisions to the proposal in the coming days.

The proposal would also require telecommunications companies to provide significantly more information in their permit applications than previous ordinances. That would take the burden off the city-parish's permitting office, said Gary Patureau, who heads the civic association's cell tower task force.

The draft — which will likely be revised before reaching the council — draws on similar ordinances passed in other localities, like Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Shreveport.

Adopted in September 2017 and amended in 2018, the current permitting rules have allowed the utility poles to pop up in public rights of way in front of homes, sparking dissent from homeowners who said they were unaware of what was coming and had received little to no notice from providers.

Under the current ordinance, the cell provider turns in its permit application to the city-parish and workers check aerial images for any conflicts. The city-parish is not currently empowered to consider aesthetic considerations. The proposed update would give the city-parish much more deference to control construction in public areas than currently exists.

The city-parish is one of countless municipalities across the country grappling with the rollout of the new technology, which nationwide will require hundreds of thousands of new towers and small-cell sites.

The Federal Communications Commission rankled some local jurisdictions in 2018 when it enacted an order implementing a “shot clock,” requiring officials to approve or deny carriers’ applications within a 60- to 90-day period, depending on the type of request. If the deadlines aren’t met, carriers have grounds to sue.

More than 90 cities and counties have joined together in a lawsuit, currently before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, arguing that the FCC has overstepped its authority in restricting how much power local governments have in regulating the devices.

The East Baton Rouge task force has opted for a less litigious strategy. They’re attempting to write an ordinance that works within current FCC regulations and benefits both residents and telecommunication companies.

"We tried to take a pretty conservative view of what provisions would be accepted by the courts if they are challenged," said Sheri Morris, an attorney hired by the civic association.


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater