New Rules for Cell Antennas May Help Town Deal with Problematic Utility Poles

An example of a double utility pole on Main Street in Watertown. The Public Works Subcommittee passed rules for cell antennas going on poles which they hope will deal with double poles and leaning ones.

New rules about where cell antennas can go and what they will look like went into place at a Council subcommittee meeting Tuesday. They include efforts to address the problems of leaning utility poles and double poles around town, but did not go as far as originally proposed.

The new rules have a long name: the Grant of Location for a Small Wireless Facility Located in a Public Right of Way in the Town of Watertown. They apply to companies seeking to install antennas for cell networks on the neighborhood level. Not only were they agreed to by the Public Works Committee, but were put into practice at the same meeting.

Utility Poles

The rules include sections about what kind of utility poles on which the wireless antennas can go. Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli drafted the rules and sought to improve the a problem seen around town where there are many leaning poles, or those with a new pole attached to an old one — called double poles.

Town officials have repeatedly asked the owner of the poles, often Verizon, to fix the leaning poles and get rid of the double poles, but have not had success. Piccirilli said he hoped to rid the Town of some of the problematic poles by only allowing new cell antennas on poles that are in good shape and are not double poles.

For new poles, he originally proposed that they could not lean more than one percent off of plumb (straight up and down). That would be a few inches. Town Councilor Tony Palomba said that he thought that standard might be too strict and suggested a 3 percent lean — nearly a foot at the top — be the maximum. The subcommittee adopted the 3 percent standard.

When a new pole is installed, sometimes the sidewalk that is removed in the process is not fixed. The new rules require the utility company to patch the sidewalk on the pole if an antenna is going to go on top of it.

Also, many poles have excess wire just hanging off of them, sometimes to the ground.

“We get calls from constituents about all the junk out there,” said Piccirilli, who proposed a rule that the unused equipment and wires be removed before the antenna can be installed.

The original version would not allow the antennas to be installed until the pole had been fixed. Representatives from the companies who have requested cell antenna locations objected.

“They don’t see this as a big financial source,” said Michael Dolan, an attorney representing AT&T.

ExteNet representative Marty Cohen added: “We have no more leverage over Verizon than you or a homeowner.”

The subcommittee agreed that they would approve the application if the companies “make a good faith effort” to get the poles fixed and old equipment removed. This would entail proof of a letter sent to the utility asking for the problems with a pole be fixed, and if necessary a follow up letter.

Other Rules

Another rule addressed when equipment on a previously approved location could be replaced. The committee agreed that it would allow an antenna that is smaller in size, and/or less powerful, without requiring companies to get approval.

If it is bigger or more powerful, the companies would have to come back to the Town for approval. Piccirilli noted that the rule does not say it would be rejected, but that companies must come back before Town officials.

The rules also include a $500 application fee, along with an annual recurring fee of $272 per facility due on Jan. 1 each year.

Other sections deal with equipment that is no longer working or is not in compliance with the Town’s rules. If the annual fee is not paid within 90 days of the deadline, or if the wireless facility is not operating for 90 days, the equipment is considered abandoned. In those cases companies have 30 days to remove the equipment or the Town will remove the equipment at the company’s expense. Also, the grant of location for the equipment will be void.

Applying the Rules

It did not take long for the first three applications to have the new rules applied to them. Two by ExteNet and one by AT&T were heard Tuesday night.

Last week, the Committee also discussed the town’s requirements for the cell antenna facilities, which included that they must be on top of utility poles, must be at least 30 above the ground, and could not be on poles with other equipment (such as electrical transformers, cable boxes or other cell antennas).

The proposal for antenna on Arsenal Street, in front of the Watertown Mall, and one on Arlington Street, near the UPS facility, received the recommendation of the subcommittee for approval by the full Town Council. One on Palfrey Street near Hill Street did not.

The proposal had not changed from the one presented two weeks before. It had the antenna on an arm which came out of the pole about 20 feet above the ground.

Marty Cohen, who represented ExteNet, said that the antenna could not be placed on top of the pole because there is a primary power line running on near the top of the pole. When asked to move the antenna to the top of the pole, Cohen said, “I don’t think we can do that.”

Piccirilli responded, “Well, I don’t think we can approve that grant of location.”

Cohen agreed to go back to the engineers to see what could be done to move the antenna.

Having the antenna higher off of the ground not only is for aesthetic reasons, but also for safety.

“The higher off the ground (that the antenna sits) the less opportunity for the RF (Radio Frequency) waves to effect people,” Piccirilli said.

An engineer brought in by AT&T, Donald Haes, agreed with Piccirilli’s statement.

The Palfrey Street antenna application will be back in front of the Public Works Committee on Feb. 5, 2019 at 7 p.m.

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