Aspen takes proactive measures to prevent cellular blight
Aspen City Council on Tuesday took steps to update its wireless infrastructure regulations in anticipation of service providers coming here and installing small-cell sites that could, if unchecked, end up as blights around town.
The city is rewriting its land-use code in response to the wireless networks moving toward 5G technology, which involves antennas, radios, electrical connections and fiber optic cable connections.
Paul Schultz, the city’s information technology director, told council all of that infrastructure among four providers could be placed every 150 feet throughout town if unregulated.
“It could get very dense,” he said. “We feel this is a very important topic that we need to work as hard as we can … really do the best we can, because I believe left to its own devices, it may not turn out the way we in the community want it to.”
5G, or fifth generation, technology promises to be faster and will support more wireless connections, among other benefits.
The network to support it requires what’s called “small-cell infrastructure.” It can be installed on buildings, light poles and under the ground using special manhole covers.
State law passed in 2017 gives providers the right to locate small-cell facilities on a city’s lights poles, traffic signals and in public rights-of-way, according to a memo by Schultz and Andrea Bryan, Aspen’s assistant city attorney.
The law also allows providers by right to install such facilities in any zone district and shortens the timeframe that the city must act on an application to 90 days, according to Schultz.
More recently, the Federal Communication Commission approved new rules, which took effect Jan. 14, that impose what are called “shot clocks” for the processing of small-cell applications.
FCC rules say that the city must allow the application being submitted for new stand-alone facilities within 90 days, or 60 days for facilities collocated on city infrastructure.
The new FCC order also clarifies that municipalities are prohibited from adopting regulations that “materially inhibit” a particular small wireless facility deployment, according to Schultz.
Two out of four of the major wireless communications service providers have already approached the city regarding small-cell deployment.
Schultz said small-cell infrastructure can be deployed tastefully and unobtrusively, or haphazardly and intrusively.
Community aesthetics, the integrity of historical districts, the character of commercial and residential areas and the natural character of parks could be undermined by the installation of above-grade infrastructure, Schultz said.
Communities have approached regulations in a variety of ways, some of which could be used as models for Aspen, and others are a lesson in what waiting to address the changing wireless landscape could result in.
Council members understood Schultz’s message that waiting could result in infrastructure that is inconsistent with Aspen’s small town and historic character.
They directed staff to incorporate into the land-use code regulations that emphasize camouflaging new small-cell sites and the collocation of existing infrastructure, as well as trying to minimize what can be done in historical districts.
The city has hired a telecommunications attorney to evaluate the current code and make suggested changes.
Jessica Garrow, the city’s Community Development director, told council that she, Bryan and Schultz are not wireless experts and need additional outside help to rewrite the land-use code. Council was supportive of that financial ask.
“This is potentially a very complicated and detailed code amendment and that’s really being driven by (how) we want to make sure we protect the city, we want to protect the community character as much as possible while complying with these state and federal rules,” she said.
A draft code amendment has been crafted and will be taken to the city’s Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation commissions next month.
Code changes also will include an expedited review process and add design standards for wireless communications facilities.
Pursuant to the FCC order, local governments have until April 14 to adopt design standards for small-cell facilities, which means the city would need to pass an ordinance adopting new code amendments with design standards by March 11 at the latest.
Schultz and Bryan recommended that the city work with providers to share and co-locate wireless infrastructure that leverages existing assets like buildings, electrical lines, fiber optic cables, light poles and manholes.
Staff also plans to meet with vendors to identify preferred designs that may be “pre-approved” for small cells and begin the process of drafting design guidelines.
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