- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 9, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - City officials and local governments in Iowa would maintain their control over where cell towers are placed within city limits under a broadband expansion proposal adopted by a legislative panel Wednesday.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee unanimously approved changes to a bill intended to expand broadband access to rural Iowans. The legislation, which now includes language about cell tower placement, is subject to full committee review as early as Thursday.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, said including this language is an attempt to adhere to the concerns of cellular companies while still maintaining local authority.

“I think across the state…there’s a need to have more of a standardized model for the state, counties and cities, municipalities and school districts,” she said. “There’s just not uniformity in some of the decision-making.”

As amended, the bill establishes a timeframe for the application approval process for cell tower placement. For brand-new structures, local governments would have 120 days to review the application, decide whether to approve or deny it and send the cellular company a written statement outlining the decision. If a cell company wants to modify an existing structure or add an antenna or other device to an existing structure, such as a water tower or utility pole, local authorities would have 60 days to work through the application. Applicants can then bring final decisions or inaction forward for review in court.

Democratic Sen. Steve Sodders, of State Center, said the language in the bill has been considered and approved by local officials. Michael McDermott, a Verizon official, said the changes are the first step toward getting what cellular companies are looking for out of the proposal, which is primarily streamlining the application process.

The Senate’s proposal strays from a draft in the House, which local officials have said could strip their authority in tower placement decisions. The Senate’s version states that local officials remain directly involved in cell tower siting and mentions the need for certain application materials. The House would eliminate local control in instances where cellular companies attach antennae onto already existing structures.

Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, took the lead on the bill in the House and has said it’s not his intention to weaken local control. He has also said he’s willing to rework the legislation to reach a consensus.

The broadband expansion plan has been a priority for Gov. Terry Branstad this session. Beyond the cell tower siting provision, the so-called Connect Every Iowan Act creates property and income tax incentives for broadband and internet providers to increase and improve access across the state.