Pitched as expanding rural internet access, a state Senate bill is a bait-and-switch that would clutter city streets with ugly, unregulated poles and boxes, the Sandy Springs mayor and City Council declared in a March 6 resolution.

The bill is part of what City Attorney Dan Lee called an “onslaught” of legislative attempts this session to strip cities of local control and “regulate from Atlanta, from the Capitol.” Of concern are bills that could strip local rules on short-term rentals and kill Dunwoody and Sandy Springs’ restrictions on wood-frame apartment construction.

According to Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee, these photos, displayed at the March 6 City Council meeting, show the sort of wireless antenna devices that could appear along city streets with little or no regulation. (John Ruch)

“I’ve never seen so many bills designed to take away local control coming from one [session of the] Assembly,” said Mayor Rusty Paul, whose day job is lobbying for various industries and governments, and who once served as a state senator. “This is a real assault on local government.”

Paul said the bills all involve “cultural” tensions between rural and urban areas with different characteristics that can’t be treated as one-size-fits-all.

Senate Bill 426 is the current big example. Self-named as the “Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act,” it is presented as rapidly expanding broadband internet access – and all of the business opportunity that comes with it – to underserved areas of rural Georgia. The main method is reducing local regulation of placing small-scale wireless antennas on existing or new poles in the public right of way through permitting and fees.

In rural areas, that often means country roads or main streets with few existing poles. In a suburban city like Sandy Springs, however, there are many existing poles and competing interests – including the city’s $8 million investment in burying utility lines around its new City Springs civic center.

“In our area, you’re talking about people’s front yards… You’re talking about a refrigerator-sized device sitting in your yard,” Paul said.

Lee displayed photographs that he said represented some types of antennas and related equipment that could be allowed on local streets under the bill, including tall poles and industrial-style gray metal boxes with protruding black cables. The council’s resolution declared that “this legislation will result in an explosion of aesthetically objectionable utility poles in Sandy Springs-owned right of way.”

But the bill’s lead sponsor, state Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), says the city is misunderstanding the law and would actually gain more control than it current has. He offered his own photos of less obtrusive antenna equipment perched atop poles. He also emphasized the legislation is still undergoing revisions and that associations representing counties and cities are “dead center in those negotiations.”

A photo provided by state Sen. Steve Gooch, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 426, shows an antenna mounted atop a traffic light pole with an equipment box mounted farther down the pole.

“Power poles for electricity, telephone, cable and other communication lines are allowed in the right of ways and are already covered by state law,” Gooch said. “This legislation actually gives local governments more control over the small cell infrastructure in the right of way than all other utilities.”

The bill includes a variety of stated or possible restrictions on antenna placement, height and design. But, Lee and other city officials said, they would be less restrictive than the city’s current standards and could all be done with a state-issued permit and no local review at all.

Lee called that “unregulated access and special privileges.” He argued it amounts to profit for private companies – many of which would not even be regulated by the state Public Service Commission – at the expense of taxpayers who maintain the right of way.

Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said that today, the city approves about 90 percent of wireless antenna permit requests, typically within 10 day. “So we are not a hindrance” to the antenna business, he said.

Similar antenna networks have been built in many U.S. cities for more than 15 years. Even in cities that have a review process, their installation and looks can be controversial. Ten years ago, a system installed in Boston after review only by an obscure internal city board drew local debate for poles that didn’t match existing ones selected in a streetscape design process; at least one pole was improperly installed by contractors and tilted over.

As with many of the other bills, a basic argument is about state Constitution provisions that give cities the power to set codes and regulations. Asked by City Councilmember John Paulson whether the bill is unconstitutional, Lee said, “In my opinion, yes.”

Unintended consequences are another concern. Councilmember Tibby DeJulio asked whether it could allow other types of businesses to use the right of way with few restrictions, such as billboard companies.

“It’s unclear,” Lee replied. “It’s a real problem. It’s very vague.”

Sandy Springs is not the only city concerned. The Georgia Municipal Association is spearheading the opposition and asking many cities to pass the same resolution. But the bill passed the Senate overwhelmingly in a 52-2 vote with support from all local state senators, and is now undergoing committee review before a possible vote in the House.

City officials said they believe the bill gained Senate support with a bait-and-switch, suggesting the industry’s main goal is free-for-all expansion in cities, not helping out struggling rural areas.

“This is being pitched as a rural development initiative, but the reality is it’s going to put those things where the market is,” said City Manager John McDonough.

Paul said in that in his discussions with wireless industry representatives, “the story changes based on where you are,” with urban officials being told the antennas are needed for a predicted city-oriented boom in autonomous vehicles.

Gooch acknowledged that urban areas are the current big market, but described that as a starting point.

“I suspect the initial investment will appear in higher populated cities and downtown settings first, but the expansion of the equipment will eventually expand out into the rural communities of Georgia,” Gooch said. “We also have two other bills in the Senate that will help address the lack of affordable and dependable internet access in rural Georgia.”

Lee said that the bill is “cloaked” as rural economic development and at the very least has “some awful side effects” on urban areas.

While officials at the council meeting said they had support from state Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs), she later said she has no position on the antenna bill yet. Silcox added that “of course, I’m going to vote in the best interest of Sandy Springs… I don’t disagree that perhaps [the bill] was cloaked in [House] Rural Development Council language, but I haven’t seen the final version.” However, Silcox said she does oppose the House bill that could kill the wood-frame construction code.

One bright spot for local control this session, Paul said, is the killing of a bill that would have wiped out the city’s new restrictions on the sale of pet cats and dogs from mass-breeding facilities.

Updated version: This story has been updated with comments from state Sen. Steve Gooch and state Rep. Deborah Silcox, and to clarify the bill’s latest status in the House.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.