- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A bill intended to expand broadband access to rural Iowans also includes language that could limit the ability of local governments to regulate the placement of cell towers, prompting opposition from some city officials who argue the state is trying to usurp local control.

The state Senate and House are wrangling with the specifics of the so-called Connect Every Iowan Act, a priority of Gov. Terry Branstad this session. In an effort to increase cellular and wireless coverage as well, the House’s version includes provisions to streamline the cell tower siting application process across the state, essentially stripping local officials of their authority in tower placement decisions.

“The language in the House bill, in my view, is pretty egregious,” said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, who is leading the effort on the Senate bill. “It really took away all local control of cell tower siting.”

Currently, local governments have jurisdiction over where or if cell towers can be located within a city’s limits, forcing cellular companies to deal with different regulations as they plan projects throughout the state. As written, the House bill aims to regulate the process in which these companies are granted approval, establishing a uniform timeline and guidelines for the application process.

But local officials see it as a means of removing them from the equation. Jeff Lester, Des Moines‘ city attorney, said the bill leaves out key components that actively involve local governments.

The bill does not require cellular companies to provide company and business plan information to local governments when applying for a new cell tower site. Should municipal authorities deny a request, and a cellular company then brings the case to federal court, local authorities wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to justify their denial.

Lester said under federal law, company information serves as evidence in these appeals. Without it, there is no basis for denial, he said, and the ruling would be in favor of the cellular company.

Another provision would mean that cellular companies could attach antennae or other devices to an existing structure, such as a utility pole or water tower. Local governments wouldn’t be involved, but would have to field complaints if the structure then soars above federal height limitations or residents dislike the esthetics of the attached device.

Skip Moore, a Des Moines City Council member, said these aspects of the bill would, in effect, nullify local official control in such matters.

Cellular companies, including AT&T;, have been involved in discussions on the bill, but an AT&T; official didn’t respond to a message seeking information.

Sodders said cellular companies’ plea for regulation involves the argument that the timeframe for applications varies greatly across the state, as well as the fees incurred as a result. He said the House plan is overreaching in that it goes beyond these concerns and eliminates local input.

As the Senate moves forward with its version of the bill, Sodders said he plans to address issues raised by cellular companies while still maintaining local control over cell tower sites.

Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, who spearheaded the effort in the House, said determining where towers can or cannot go is a difficult task, but that it’s not his intent to weaken anyone’s say in their placement.

“I do not want to take away the authority of local officials in terms of cell tower siting,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to take that away.”

Cownie said he’s willing to reconsider changes to the bill, and that he’s “wide open” to finding consensus on the matter.

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