New state law compounds Paradise Valley cell phone solution set

An overview of the landscape of the Town of Paradise Valley. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The Town of Paradise Valley has until Aug. 8 to re-write a portion of its zoning code to insert provisions prohibiting cell carriers from having free reign within municipal rights-of-way.

Paradise Valley town officials have zeroed in on the Personal Wireless Service Facilities chapter of the municipal zoning code with an eye toward inserting “objective design standards and reasonable stealth and concealment requirements” specific to construction of cell service apparatus.

Paradise Valley Town Council and the Planning Commission Wednesday, May 17 hosted a “Community Conversation” on potential cell phone reception issue solutions coupled with an explanation of a new state law that is driving much of the local talk surrounding cellular infrastructure.

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.

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.

Kevin Burke

“We know because of this new law we would have to rewrite a chapter of the zoning code,” Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke said at the May 17 conversation. “This was billed as a small-cell bill and It has evolved.”

Mr. Burke points out every community in Arizona is trying to find a way to regulate and manage construction within municipal rights-of-way empowered by the Arizona Legislature.

“They are trying to pre-empt the whole process — they want their own pole,” he said of part of the fuel of the HB 2365 legislative push.

Paradise Valley Director of Administration & Government Affairs Dawn Marie Buckland points out HB 2365 empowers cell phone tower builders with a matter of right to erect cell infrastructure within public rights-of-way.

“The longstanding history of undergrounding utilities and maintaining our magnificent view sheds — it still does apply to the rights-of-way,” she said of zoning code requirements embedded within undergrounding construction guidelines.

Dawn Marie Buckland

“We are not talking about the construction of this infrastructure on private property. We can require applications. If we have objective design standards and stealth and concealment we could deny that application.”

Paradise Valley Town Attorney Andrew Miller agrees with that summation for new infrastructure pursued, but it’s not the same story with existing cellular apparatus.

“On existing poles and existing electric transmission poles that is where they have more of a matter of right,” he pointed out of provisions within HB 2365.

But Mr. Miller points out the distributed antenna system erected in 2011 established very specific design standards for any new small-cell connectivity solution.

“We have already done a small-cell configuration — that would be our default standard,” he pointed out. “What we are willing to live with? The devil is in the detail of this bill.”

Mr. Miller says legal interpretation will play a major role in how HB 2365 is enforced.

Andrew Miller

“The real push is when we sit down with these cell providers and ask them to build 24-foot cacti because that is what has been in our town and there doesn’t seem to be any problems,” he said. “They could come back and say that is not reasonable. I think all of those macro poles you can have go through your SUP process.”

Mr. Miller opines the town could see applications for small-cell solutions in the 28- to 35-foot range.

“There is a sweet spot in the industry of 28 to 35 feet,” he said. “We think 24 feet is reasonable, but tell us why you don’t think so? We can find a standard that everyone can live with.”

Mr. Miller says current SUP guidelines and undergrounding provisions will help regulate new cellular infrastructure as projects emerge.

The problem

The Town of Paradise Valley’s geography and land-use patterns, traditional macro cell sites are limited within town limits. Sloping hillsides and mountains create challenges to the quality of cell phone coverage and how that service can be improved, town officials say.

In 2011 the town attempted to rectify the issues 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 throughout a community improving coverage, voice quality and internet access of cell phones, according to Independent archives.

As a solution, 42 antenna nodes had been installed throughout Paradise Valley embedded within faux cacti.
Mr. Burke outlined options the town has to improving cell phone coverage that largely hinges on what is already understood: either the town will continue on through small-antenna nodes are find three locations for a macro-cell tower site to blanket the town in coverage.

Paul Dembow

Paradise Valley Councilman Paul Dembow was a serious skeptic of any solutions devised by government minds.

“I don’t think we can fix this any better than healthcare — I think this really needs to be market-driven,” he said.

Councilman Dembow wants stiff requirements providing for clear-cut denials of applications that may come to the Town of Paradise Valley.

Paradise Valley Councilman David Sherf echoed similar sentiments expressed by Mr. Dembow.
“This is all great but it has to work,” he told Mr. Burke while cracking a smile. “I am worried that we will have this slick solution with people looking around and being impressed, but it doesn’t work.”

Town leaders say there are six options that could work:

  • Triangle pole — 60 feet in height with a cost of $300,000 each;
  • Mono palm, eucalyptus, pine, flagpole — 45 feet in height with a cost of $400,000 to $600,000 each;
  • Distributed antenna system — 20 to 30 feet in height with a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per node;
  • Roof mount macro site — 24 feet in height with a cost of $100,000 each;
  • Traffic light installation — 30 to 50 feet in height with a cost of $30,000 to $80,000 each;
  • Mountainside macro installation — height will be the existing cable with a cost of $10,000 each.

A workable solution

Town leaders suggest costs to the town and solutions to be pursued will likely emerge in coming months; however, true costs to the municipality and workable solutions have not been identified.

Vice Mayor  Jerry Bien-Willner says multiple factors will drive much of the cell phone conversation within municipal bounds.

Jerry Bien-Willner

“In terms of creating a welcome mat for small-cell, I think we have to be careful with that,” he said pointing out the fluidity of the technology sector’s desire to use certain hardware. “When you start paving the way for barrier specific sites it can throw off the counter balance.”

Paradise Valley Councilwoman Julie Pace says compromise needs to drive this conversation to ensure town leaders can deliver on resident expectations.

“You need the hammer to get there,” she said of strict design and concealment provisions to be inserted into town zoning code.  “I would hope we would develop a strategy to find a way for our cell provider partners to develop best practices.”

Councilwoman Pace explains cellular company executives are looking for the most streamlined approach to installing infrastructure to deliver services to its customer base — and she says communication with them will help keep Paradise Valley values intact.

Julie Pace

“It’s an open space area and it is different than Scottsdale and Fountain Hills,” she said. “I would like for us to send out a letter to these companies. Providers can then come forward and chose to be partners.”

But Councilwoman Pace also says the town needs to be comfortable holding to its standards.

“It is going to require a clean application process,” she said. “They are going to have a slow down and we are going to have to deny it and get used to deny it.”

The Paradise Valley Town Council on Thursday, May 25 will provide direction to town staff regarding a statement of direction meant to direct the Planning Commission on what amendments to the Personal Wireless Service Facilities section in the zoning ordinance ought to be.

Town officials say town council will likely render a vote on the SOD Thursday, June 8 at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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