Small Cells Zoning – Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

By Tom Leddo, Vice President

On September 8, I had the privilege of moderating a panel at the Tower and Small Cell Summit that accompanied CTIA Super Mobility Show at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas, entitled “Small Cell Zoning: It’s A Problem. We Can Fix It.” The panel consisted of three attorneys; two from Southern California – Jeffrey Melching and Tripp May who typically work on behalf of municipalities and Chris Fisher who typically represents carriers in zoning issues and also just happens to be the President of the New York State Wireless Association. I say it was a privilege because these three attorneys are some of the best in the industry and I only had to ask the questions, not answer them.

The panel did a great job discussing best practices and how to find common ground between deploying small cells in the right-of-way and maintaining the aesthetic integrity of communities.

The 15-20 members of the Md7 Land Use team and I often discuss best practices regarding the rapidly evolving practice of deploying small cells in the ROW. I was encouraged to learn that many of the things we practice at Md7 are in fact the same things this panel recommended such as starting to communicate with municipal authorities very early in the zoning process, take the time to educate municipalities on why small cells exist and how it may be time to update the code to address this evolution in technology.

In my own words and in my own opinion, the following is a countdown of the top-five “take-aways” from this talented panel.

5. There are more success stories than horror stories – All three attorneys agreed that more often than not the operators and communities appear to be working together to reach a solution. That doesn’t mean that either side gets everything they want, but rather reasonable compromises are being reached. As is the case with many things, we just hear about the horror stories and often assume that is the norm – it isn’t.

4. Most municipalities do not oppose small cells – Generally, many municipalities recognize the need for, and in some cases even welcome, the new deployment methods to accommodate demand for high-speed connectivity to accommodate data and streaming video. According to Jeff Melching, in many cases the demand for data is beginning to outweigh the opposition against cell sites.

3. Working together and listening pays off – Tripp May pointed out that he often doesn’t even get asked to work with a municipality unless there is an issue and often those issues are caused by a threatening or unreasonable position on behalf of one side that causes the other side to take an aggressive counter position. By simply being reasonable and listening to each other, many of the issues can be avoided.

2. There are pros and cons to the shot clock. While both parties typically recognize and understand the shot clock, it may be equally advantageous to use it as a guide rather than a hard and fast rule. Federal shot clocks require operators to submit “complete” packages for zoning approval and then the zoning authority has 60, 90, or 150 days to approve or reject the submission, depending on the site build. If followed to the letter, an operator and vendor working on their behalf could spend a significant amount of money compiling a complete package for submission in anticipation of “starting the applicable shot clock” only to have it rejected outright and thereby wasting time and money. A better approach may be to discuss in advance the zoning authorities’ concerns and factor those issues in the initial design. This approach requires buy in from both sides- the applicant will need to produce some preliminary visual representations earlier in the process, while the municipality needs to be willing to provide meaningful feedback prior to a complete application and shot clock beginning.

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – In case you haven’t noticed the common thread in the first four of the top five in this list, it is clearly that communication is the key to finding a win/win solution to deploying small cells in the right-of-way. At the end of the one-hour panel I asked all three attorneys “if they wanted all attendees to take away just one thing from the session, what would it be?” All three answered “communication.” Each elaborated uniquely but I would summarize their comments as not only talking but also listening and considering to the other side’s position. More often than not the opposing position is grounded in reason and a mutual solution can be reached if respectful communication occurs.

Candidly speaking, the Land Use team at Md7 has been telling me for several months that communication is simply the best approach to working with municipalities when deploying in the ROW. I am glad to hear the experts agree.

September 22, 2016
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