Cellular infrastructure construction rules forming in Paradise Valley

A view of the topography of the Town of Paradise Valley that makes cell phone reception a troublesome part of living in the affluent enclave. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The Town of Paradise Valley is working toward a new set of standards for where and how cell phone antenna apparatus will look and function within municipal limits as the deadline for Arizona cities and towns to abide by new statewide standards looms.

HB 2365 was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on March 31 allowing wireless carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint to install, operate and maintain small-cell equipment in city and town rights-of-way, according to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

The new law takes effect Tuesday, Aug. 8 and without “objective design standards and reasonable stealth and concealment requirements” municipalities within the state will have little say-so where cell poles are erected or how they look.

The Paradise Valley Planning Commission is working through edits of two sections of the municipal zoning code — Section 1 that amends town code 2-5-2 and Section 2 that amends town code 1102.2 — meant to create both an administrative and legislative pathway to cell phone infrastructure installation.

The amendments will insert “objective design standards and reasonable stealth and concealment requirements” to the Personal Wireless Service Facilities chapter of the municipal zoning code specific to construction of cell phone apparatus.

Paradise Valley Town Council is expected to hear this item 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8 at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive.

The new state law allows cell phone carriers as a matter of right to erect cell phone infrastructure within public rights of way.

“Ideally, what we are trying to get down to is creating a process that says if you check the boxes you can get approval and are moving forward in an administrative process,” said Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke during a July 11 Planning Commission study session discussion.

“If you aren’t going to design the way we want you to design it then you are going through a legislative process that requires a special use permit. There are still some degrees of discretion at the administrative level but they are still pretty narrow.”

Mr. Burke points out philosophically the idea is to create a master license for installing items into the town’s rights of way, which town leaders say is within the bounds of local controls apart of HB 2365.

“The idea is that if you are going to put something in the town right of way you are going to need to lease that space,” he explained to the Commission. “That is separate and apart from this whole process — you have to get that piece that spells out a lot of those terms,” he said of the master license provision.

The pole and the cacti

Paradise Valley Planning Commission Chairman Daran Wastchak says a major focus of the new stipulations is to encourage the best construction practices.

“I want to keep them off the pole,” he said during the July 11 discussion of concerns of small-cell equipment being latched upon local street lights. “That’s what we are trying to do here.”

The core of the issue is the community of Paradise Valley is sensitive to the aesthetics of the municipality while desiring top-notch cell service that can only be gained through substantial infrastructure installations to maintain signal strength throughout the region’s mountainous terrain.

Beyond aesthetics, Paradise Valley Commissioner Dolf Strom raised the point safety concerns ought to be a major consideration of any new design standards put into place.

Commissioner Strom recalled in 2011 when the town attempted to rectify cell phone issues at the time through new technology known as a distributed antenna system, which consists of a fiber-optic backbone that includes a series of six-foot antenna nodes installed within faux cacti throughout the community.

“Our concern at that time was that we didn’t want one of those things knocked over by a truck laying on the ground and some little kid coming up on the thing putting their body over it and being exposed to high levels of radiation,” Commissioner Strom said.

Commissioner Strom points out radio waves and how they move through the air ought to be a top consideration.

“If you are right on top of this thing you do have an exposure that exceeds the FCC standards,” he said in a July 18 phone interview regarding his study session comments. “We have to manage cell phone service so that it does not threaten public safety. One thing that was no proposed to the Planning Commission was the relationship between the number of phones and the number of antennas needed.”

Paradise Valley Director of Administration & Government Affairs Dawn Marie Buckland says changes to the local zoning code is meant to provide two functions: ensure town aesthetics as new cell phone installations are erected and appease new state guidelines.

“We want to make sure we are balancing the ability to rapidly deploy this technology because we do want to do a better service for our community,” she said in a July 18 phone interview. “We want to make sure that we are providing an environment where the market can come in and deploy the new technology in a rapid fashion but do so within our aesthetic guidelines.”

Ms. Buckland contends new legal provisions provided to cell phone carriers will result in better cell service for local residents — sooner rather than later.

“This is a community that wants improved coverage for their cell phones yet wants to maintain the look and feel of the community,” she said. “I think this is a great example of good government.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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