ORANGE COUNTY – Soon, city and county governments in Florida could have less authority over their public right-of-ways courtesy of a recently introduced bill making its way through the state Legislature in Tallahassee.
The bill has been proposed in the Florida Senate as SB 596, and its accompaniment in the House of Representatives is HB 687.
Its goal? To prohibit governments from denying telecommunication providers — such as AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint — permits on the basis of zoning regulations.
Translation: Municipal government officials essentially would be severely limited in the permitting process involving telecommunication providers’ applications to install equipment on utility poles — equipment that would enable 5G services for cellular technology.
Given its potential to suppress government oversight on their own right-of-ways, the bill has disturbed some local leaders who believe it threatens the city and county governments’ jurisdictional power.
“This bill is a flat-out subsidy for the telecommunications industry,” said Windermere Mayor Gray Bruhn, who also sits on the Florida League of Cities Board of Directors. “It allows AT&T, Verizon and every wireless provider the authority to place small or micro wireless antennas and equipment on taxpayer-owned public structures and right of ways.”
The bill, known as the Advanced Wireless Infrastructure Deployment Act, sets the terms in a manner that chiefly benefits the telecommunication providers and leads to a form of corporate welfare, argued Scott Dudley, the legislative director for the Florida League of Cities.
“What they’re trying to do is preempt local government authority from having any type of zoning regulation with respect to the placement of these towers and ancillary equipment in the right of ways of cities and counties,” Dudley said. “They’ve also established an expedited permit review process where they can submit, say, 50 or 60 applications, and we would have a set amount of time by which we would have to respond to those.”
The bill imposes a 60-day timeframe on the approval or denial of applications for permits. If governments don’t take any action to deny or approve the bill in 60 days, it is automatically considered to be approved.
The bill also calls for multiple prohibitions. One particularly contentious provision prohibits governments from charging providers routine maintenance fees or usage fees amounting to more than $15 per year.
“In some other states where they have this (bill), it ranges from $2,000 to whatever the actual cost for that city is to prepare the permit and to deal with all that,” Dudley said. “So we end up paying for that. It’s corporate welfare. For the taxpayers, it’s unfair. Taxpayers should be outraged by it.”
As per routine, a city or county conducts an engineering study to ensure a utility pole can handle additional equipment. However, another bill component — the Make-Ready provision — would free providers from the obligation of reimbursing the city or county for costs to conduct that study.
“This bill requires a city, at its taxpayers’ expense, to develop engineering and other structural reports on the city’s own structures so that a wireless company may or may not decide to use for an antenna,” Bruhn said.
If the study finds the telecommunication provider will need to pay a certain fee to upgrade the pole to make it capable of handling their equipment, the provider can then walk away — without any obligation to reimburse the city for its troubles.
But besides monetary issues, Dudley believes the passing of this bill will especially affect residents who prize aesthetics, He emphasized the lack of obligation telecom providers have to work with local governments on the terms and conditions of the location for their equipment, in addition to the issues of accountability and safety that the bill presents.
“Imagine what your downtown looks like or what your city looks like,” Dudley said. “Now these telecom providers can come put these poles there up to 60 feet tall, (if there is no other pole in the vicinity), as well as a small dormitory-sized refrigerator located next to the poles if it’s in the right-of-way. And they get to do that with basically us not having any input. So imagine what your city will look like with all those types of poles and that equipment just placed wherever the telecom company thought it would be appropriate to place it.”
If passed, the bill will take effect July 1.
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected].