Residents of a Sandy Springs neighborhood are raising concerns because Verizon has started digging up their yards to prepare for a plan to install over 1,000 new poles in the city in preparation for 5G, the newest generation of wireless technology for cellular networks. But city officials say they cannot interfere because of a new law that passed last year restricting local control on cell towers.

In response to the new law, some cities are deciding to join a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission.

An example of a “small cell” antenna in a photo included in a 2019 Sandy Springs presentation. (Special)

One resident of Derby Hills, a neighborhood near Peachtree-Dunwoody Road and Windsor Parkway in Sandy Springs, said he does not think Verizon communicated with anyone in the neighborhood before beginning the process of digging up yards for pole placement.

“I can clearly tell there wasn’t any planning in this,” the resident said at a Feb. 4 council meeting. “There was no kind of conversation or correspondence with the neighborhoods.”

Matt Hartley with Verizon spoke at the meeting, admitting that the company did not properly notify residents of the pole installations.

“We dropped the ball on that,” Hartley said at the meeting. “We did not follow what we had discussed with the city permitting office as far as notifications for residents.”

The installation of poles will continue, Hartley said, but Verizon is trying to avoid placing poles in front of houses and front doors at all costs.

According to Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert, there are over 1,000 applications for such poles in Sandy Springs.

Mayor Rusty Paul is unhappy with the legislation and is concerned with the amount of power it gives telecom companies.

Paul said at a Feb. 4 meeting that the city fought against the bill last year, but the major telecom companies went to the legislature to be able to avoid local concern.

“They went to the legislature and then they went to the Federal Telecommunications Commission to be able to bypass local governments because they see us as a problem,” Paul said at the meeting.

Sandy Springs is now considering joining the coalition of cities suing the FCC and will discuss the idea further at an upcoming council meeting.

Brookhaven joined the lawsuit last year, which cost the city a $5,000 flat fee.

“The primary reason we joined is because we had a number of complaints from citizens about small cells in front of their homes and messing up their viewshed,” said Brookhaven City Attorney Chris Balch in a recent interview.

In 2018, the FCC issued an order for a “one-size-fits-all” solution to small cell deployment and curtailed what the city could do in its own right of way, he said.

“When we joined the FCC fight, we said our citizens want to protect what their streets and sidewalks look like,” Balch said. “The FCC says we don’t have that power anymore.”

Crown Castle is the country’s largest provider of wireless technology and owns many of the cell towers and fiber infrastructure used by companies like Verizon. Kimberly Adams, the company’s government relations manager for the area, said last year the state bill keeps wireless providers from having to meet different regulations in different cities and simplifies the process of getting high-speed internet access across the state.

In March 2019, the Sandy Springs City Council passed a law that required companies to install new antennas on existing poles if possible and that set fees in preparation for the new legislation.

The application fee for collocation is $100. Replacement poles will cost $500 and new poles $1,000.

The fee for using the city’s right of way is set at $100 per year for collocation on an existing or replacement pole, $200 per year for new poles and $40 per year for collocation on a city pole, according to the ordinance.

In December 2018, Brookhaven’s City Council approved its own small-cell legislation that determined the fair market value for use of city right of way is $1,000 for each wireless antenna, or small cell node.

In 2015, the Dunwoody City Council approved a small-cell ordinance limiting the height and size of nodes.

–Dyana Bagby contributed

Hannah Greco

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.