Aspen’s elected officials try to stave off 5G impacts
Aspen City Council took steps on Tuesday to place strict rules on small-cell wireless infrastructure that supports 5G technology, including prohibiting anything on the pedestrian malls and in front of historic buildings.
Council considered draft guidelines during a work session in an attempt to tamp down unfettered development of small-cell facilities in the face of the federal government allowing providers to place their equipment in the public right-of-way in communities all over the country.
Council members tentatively agreed that having providers install their infrastructure inside of new light poles in the right-of-way that mimics the city’s existing streetlights would be least impactful.
They would be replaced in their current locations, and the providers would have to pay for the installation and maintenance of the facilities.
Under the city’s proposed guidelines, the small-cell facilities must be located within the pole structure, or in an underground vault.
“They already have electricity running through them and are in the right-of-way,” Ben Anderson, a planner in the city’s Community Development department, told council.
The tallest streetlights in town are 19.5 feet. City staff is recommending that new poles can go up to 25 feet, which is what is allowed for buildings in the commercial core.
Under federal law, they go could as high as 50 feet.
City officials’ hands are tied in a number of ways because the FCC last year 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.
Anderson said there are pending applications filed with the city, and more are expected in the near future.
The rule changes preempt local authority over the use of public rights-of-way for small-cell infrastructure, as well as limit local review to aesthetic and location preferences, and allow the infrastructure as a use by right in all zone districts.
Paul Schultz, the city’s director of information technology, said the municipal government is taking a “less is more” approach to a future ordinance regulating providers.
“What’s been forced upon us we are trying to deal with in a minimalist approach,” he told council.
That was in response to Councilman Skippy Mesirow’s comment that the city should consider other uses for the new poles, like messaging or informational signs.
Fellow council members were reluctant to go down that path.
“I’m in favor of minimalism with this,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said.
The ideas brought forward Tuesday are based on feedback from the public through outreach, and will be vetted more by the outside firm, HRGreen, Inc.
The city hired HRGreen to help create 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 proposed guidelines also would prohibit small-cell facilities in the right-of-way adjacent to any street facing the façades of iconic Aspen structures like 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 would be allowed in the Aspen pedestrian malls, or in the foreground of a designated view plane of Aspen Mountain or historic structures.
To address concerns from the public about detrimental health effects, staff is proposing that providers submit detailed information about the radio frequency emissions specific to a given facility once it’s installed and upgraded.
The city’s pending ordinance also could require testing and reporting of the actual frequencies and strength of those frequencies being emitted following the installation or upgrade of a wireless facility within 90 days.
Cellular providers also would conduct annual audits.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she would prefer a shorter time period in an effort to quell concerns from neighbors and members of the public who are exposed to that infrastructure.
City staff will take the next few weeks to work on the guidelines based on council’s feedback. They will bring those changes back to the Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation commissions for review, and then to council for an ordinance approval in mid March.
A pitch led by Theatre Aspen’s executive director to expand the organization’s facilities and create a permanent underground venue got mixed reviews from officeholders and board members Monday.
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