Council backs opposition to wireless infrastructure bills

FRONT ROYAL – The town would like to retain control over its wireless infrastructure.

The Town Council passed a resolution Monday opposing the proposed House Bill 1258 and Senate Bill 405 that Town Attorney Doug Napier said would eliminate most local influence over the installation and control of wireless structures.

Napier said the bills would allow wireless industries to place devices on “any town structure that they want to,” primarily electric poles. Potential obstacles to placing them in certain locations include interfering with established signals or overloading a pole.

The resolution states local elected officials, residents and businesses would no longer have input into decisions that affect their community’s character. Napier said the bills would essentially remove all local zoning control over wireless communication structures.

This would create a “shift in authority” that hands over decision making from communities to “for-profit corporations,” the resolution states.

A potential negative consequence is that wireless companies would receive different treatment than other private businesses, Napier said. In turn, other industries could possibly sue the state and localities for the disparity.

The town would probably be forced to have similar standards for all industries, which Napier said “would mean we would lose total control of our electric and light poles.”

Wireless industries would have to submit applications to place devices around town, according to a provision in House Bill 1258. If the applications were incomplete, the town would have 10 days to provide notice of what additional information is needed. If no notice is given within 10 days, the application would be approved.

Considering the town’s small staff, that is an an unreasonable time frame to conduct a “meaningful approval process,” Napier said.

House Bill 1258 stipulates a maximum $500 fee for any such administrative reviews, and Town Manager Joe Waltz said costs would almost always exceed that limit.

Another negative aspect is that the bills would render the town unable to charge for franchise fees that help offset costs to upkeep utility poles, Napier said. Town Finance Director B.J. Wilson said Tuesday that about $67,000 is generated from franchise agreements.

Napier said the burden would fall on the citizens, and he questioned if it was constitutionally permissible for taxpayers to subsidize for-profit operations.

“It would allow anybody to locate anywhere for free,” Napier said.

Napier added that he does not normally advocate policy, but is doing so because the bills “would frankly be a disaster for all localities in Virginia.”

The council passed the resolution on an expedited request sent out Jan. 10 from the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, which requested that all state localities oppose the bills.

Napier said he did not know when the bills would go up for vote, but it could be any day. Both must pass for the new rules to be instituted.

The council also:

• Approved the amendment of the 2004 “Policy for Assessment for the Installation of Local Improvements.” Landowners and the town will now share half of total costs per square foot of walkway improved and half of total costs per linear foot of curb and gutter improved. The previous cost to landowners was a $3 maximum for sidewalks or walkways and a $12 maximum for curbs and gutters.

• Approved two resolutions declaring Jan. 22 to 26 as “The Great Kindness Challenge Week” in the Town of Front Royal per the request of E. Wilson Morrison and Leslie Fox Keyser elementary schools. This week is dedicated to students performing as many kind deeds as possible.