House Bill 176, authored by District 44 Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, chairman of the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, was approved by his full committee on Thursday and will be presented to the Rules Committee early this week. Parsons hopes to bring the bill up for a full House vote by the end of the week.
The law is designed to streamline the process for new cell towers, to place limitations on the time that municipalities have to approve the facilities and to limit fees charged.
“We’re certainly opposed to this bill,” said Carrollton Assistant City Manager Tim Grizzard. “The way I read it, it sounds like there would be restrictions on what we could charge them (cell tower companies) to locate on our water towers, assuming we were going to allow that.”
Grizzard said the city is concerned about the time limits allowed municipalities to make a decision and about where cell towers can be placed.
“Neighbors are generally opposed to these things and they need time to be notified and everything to be evaluated properly,” he said.
Artagus Newell, the county’s zoning administrator, said the county hasn’t had many telecommunications requests in recent years.
“The most recent one was two years ago, and it was the first in several years,” Newell said. “We had several in the last decade when cellphone usage was really exploding, but around the middle of the decade, it tapered off as coverage was established.”
Both the Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the lobbying agencies for cities and counties respectively, are opposed to the legislation.
The bill would give local governments 150 days to approve or deny a tower application before it would be automatically approved. A change in an existing structure would have 90 days for action before automatic approval. The bill would also allow owners of existing towers to increase the height by 10 percent or footprint of the structure by 20 feet without local government approval.
Parsons defended his bill Friday, saying the measures are necessary for economic development and public safety. He said he is a former telephone installer and repairman who worked back in the 1960s when there were no cellphones.
“We’ve gone from all wire phones to now where it’s about 70 percent cellular,” Parsons told The Times-Georgian Friday. “That’s a huge increase in demand on cellular towers. The devices themselves are changing, with almost all cellphones now smartphones. That has caused an amazing increase in bandwidth demand. There has to be some way to keep up with it.”
Parsons said it’s also a safety issue because people need access to the cellular network to place 911 calls or for parents to reach their children by cellphone.
“Another issue is economic development,” he said. “Companies come in and want utilities and enough bandwidth to conduct business. If they find it’s not there, they find another place to go.”
The Georgia Municipal Association says the bill would eliminate zoning protections that cities now have, would prevent cities from imposing height limitations, would prevent cities from determining rental rates, would prohibit cities from imposing requirements for removal of old towers and would allow automatic approval of cell towers if cities don’t act within a certain time frame.
But Parsons said he feels there’s much misunderstanding of his legislation and some of the objections are based on earlier versions of the bill that has been changed. He said hearings were held in which municipalities had input and some changes were incorporated into the bill.
“The bill has nothing to do with zoning and changes nothing about zoning at all,” he said. “The main reason for the bill is to expedite the permitting process for towers to go up. We have 159 counties in Georgia and many cities and they all do their permitting differently. If they have adopted zoning ordinances, this bill doesn’t change that at all.”
Parsons said the main thing that the bill does is set up a “shot clock,” giving municipalities 150 days to make a decision before it’s done automatically. On modifications to existing towers, he said the shot clock would be 90 days.