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Amendment helps providers close gaps in wireless coverage
Many utility pole installations expected as carriers mount new equipment
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY PUBLIC WORKS
The square box attached to this light pole is an example of the equipment to be installed by wireless carriers to improve coverage.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners approved an ordinance amending the Land Development Code April 11 that will allow wireless communications providers to place poles and equipment in county-owned and maintained rights-of-way.

Commissioner Karen Seel voted no, and Commissioner John Morroni was absent.

Existing county code prohibits the placement of vertical structures within the county rights-of-way where the primary purpose is to serve as a mounting device for antennae. However, that code does not comply with the Federal Telecommunications Act.

The Act says, “The regulation of the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless facilities by state or local government shall not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services” and “shall not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services through the regulation of the placement.”

To give staff time to come up with an amendment to code, the Commission approved a six-month moratorium on permitting communication facilities in rights-of-way. That moratorium expires April 25.

Rahim Harji, Public Works director, said staff had reviewed similar ordinances around the country and received input from three facility installers and providers to come up with the amendment that brings county’s code into compliance with state and federal law, including the Telecommunications Act. It also eases the installation of communication facilities within rights-of-way.

The revised ordinance addresses aesthetics, including height of poles, restricted to 40-feet, and types of material. It also addresses safety measures, such as distance from sidewalks and pedestrian ramps, and distance from existing poles and buildings. It includes a requirement that poles not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic. In addition, it requires bonding to ensure a long-term maintenance obligation.

Harji said the ordinance applies to all county-owned and maintained rights-of-way. It requires a right-of-way utilization permit, which will be approved at the staff level. Multiple installations are allowed with one permit and bonding options are available for multiple installations.

Staff advised commissioners that three bills currently being considered by the state legislature could limit or prohibit the county from regulating communication facilities, meaning another code amendment could be needed in the future.

County staff is anticipating that several hundred applications for permits will be coming forward, as 50-60 were submitted prior to enacting the moratorium. County Administrator Mark Woodard said the county’s municipalities are responsible for their own regulations. He said it is likely they will model them after the county’s ordinance.

Commissioner Karen Seel, who was the only commissioner to vote against the change, is concerned about aesthetics among other things. Harji said providers are required to camouflage poles in scenic corridors and historic districts. Seel suggested that they be asked to do the same in residential neighborhoods.

Seel asked for assurances from staff that changing the code was something the commission had to do.

“We could see a lot of poles in our county,” Seel said.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked about the “worst case scenario” when the number of poles reached the saturation point.

Woodard explained that the poles and equipment was a technical requirement by wireless carriers to be able to fills gaps in their coverage area.

“It will only be what the market can bear,” he said, pointing out that there was a cost to place facilities.

Commissioner Dave Eggers asked if providers could be asked to use existing poles before considering putting up new ones. Harji said that would be the preference. He said the code included a requirement to co-locate facilities if it fulfilled the needs of providers.

Chris Parra, vice president of small cell and strategic transactions for Uniti Fiber in St. Petersburg, said it was possible to put equipment to service more than one wireless carrier on one pole. He said the preference would be to use existing phone poles, followed by existing power poles, if that was safe, and finally installation of a new pole.

He said plans called for using decorative poles in areas like Clearwater Beach and downtown St. Petersburg.

Seel asked to change the proposed code amendment to require the use of camouflage in residential areas and for placement of poles to be 10-feet from driveways instead of the 6-feet proposed by staff. The Commission concurred.

Harji said providers would be encouraged to get with staff early to address the needs of the carriers and the desires of the commission.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County Editor. She can be reached at webmaster@tbnweekly.com.
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