Aspen City Council passes strict rules on 5G technology
Aspen City Council on Tuesday finalized strict rules on small-cell wireless infrastructure that supports 5G technology, including requiring carriers to provide annual reports that detail the radio frequency emissions from specific sites in order to determine potential health effects.
Lawyers representing Verizon objected to that rule, arguing in a letter to council that it would be overstepping its authority, and requiring an electromagnetic emissions report is a violation of the federal Telecommunications Act.
Ben Anderson, principal planner for the city’s Community Development department, told council that understanding how these facilities operate and what potential health effects they may generate are crucial.
“We’re not simply trying to throw up bureaucratic obstacles at these facilities, we do feel this is very important information for the community to have about these facilities that are being installed in our town,” he said, noting that generating emissions reports are expensive and that is one reason carriers are reluctant to provide them.
The city has relied on outside legal counsel specializing in telecommunications in reviewing its 5G technology regulations, and feels comfortable with Aspen’s wireless design guidelines, said Assistant City Attorney Andrea Bryan.
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“We expect pushback but we do believe these are defensible,” she said, adding that AT&T has agreed to producing electromagnetic emissions reports.
Bryan also noted that going up against the feds and high-powered lawyers would expose the city to lawsuits that could cost well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Before voting unanimously to approve the guidelines, council members acknowledged they were doing so reluctantly and under duress.
City officials’ hands are tied in a number of ways because the FCC in recent years has significantly reduced local control of small-cell wireless infrastructure, including any regulations on the basis of health concerns and radio frequency emissions.
And a state law gives providers the right to locate small-cell facilities on a city’s light poles, traffic signals and in public rights-of-way.
Also, according to state and federal regulations, the city has as little as 30 days to review and approve applications.
Tom Lankering spoke during public comment Tuesday, saying he is working with a state organization called Coloradans For Safe Technology to demand that safety and health studies be done on 5G technology.
He said he also recognizes the difficulty in the municipal government going against the federal government, which is friendly to telecommunications and is backed by high-powered lawyers.
He urged the city to continue to fight for its citizens’ health even though it’s a David-versus-Goliath situation.
“I think it’s incredibly important for this community to stand up to Goliath and do whatever to protect our health,” Lankering said.
Other stringent rules in the 64-page guidelines document may trigger challenges from the carriers and their legal teams, but as Councilwoman Rachel Richards pointed out, Aspen has been a trailblazer in the past in protecting community character, including not allowing the standard large arches for the McDonalds fast-food restaurant that was here for decades, or heavily dictating what the parking meters around town look like and where they are located.
“We are hearing about carrier requirements and I think we need to be equally strong on the community requirement,” she said.
The city’s guidelines also require that carriers must provide public notice to residents in an area where the facility is going to be installed.
Within 15 days of an application, carriers must erect a poster where the technology will be located and provide a notice through the mail to residents who live within 300 feet.
The guidelines state that providers install their infrastructure inside of new light poles in the right-of-way that mimics the city’s existing streetlights.
The poles can be as tall as 25 feet tall, which is what is allowed for buildings in the commercial core. The tallest streetlights in town are 19.5 feet.
The city hired HRGreen to help create the design guidelines to minimize and standardize impacts to public rights of ways and overall aesthetics in town in response to the FCC rule changes.
The guidelines also prohibit small-cell facilities in the right-of-way adjacent to any street facing the façades of iconic Aspen structures such as the Wheeler Opera House, the Elks’ Building, the Wheeler-Stallard Museum, the Hotel Jerome, City Hall, the Pitkin County Courthouse, St. Mary Church, the Sardy House and others.
Under the guidelines, no small-cell facilities will be allowed in the Aspen pedestrian malls, or in the foreground of a designated view plane of Aspen Mountain or historic structures.
And the minimum distance between facilities that contain the same wireless provider’s equipment is 600 feet, which includes both small-cell facilities and larger facilities that may be on rooftops of private or public buildings.
Anderson noted that the city’s public outreach efforts on the guidelines netted interactions and input from more than 200 people through small group gatherings, public workshops, forums, social media campaigns and other tactics.
The most significant and consistent comments that staff received related to small-cell facilities has come from citizens concerned about potential health effects of emerging 5G technology.
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