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Carmel acts quickly to exempt city limits from small cell tower placement without local approval

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Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently signed a bill giving telecommunications companies the power to place antennas and small cell towers throughout public right-of-way in cities and towns without approval from local municipalities.

The goal is to upgrade wireless networks from 4G to 5G speed, which is 10 times faster, but officials in Carmel, including Mayor Jim Brainard and the Carmel City Council, worry that the new poles, towers and other above-ground structures would be unsightly.

As a result, the Carmel Board of Public Works and Safety took advantage of a provision in the law and exempted all of Carmel’s city limits from thelegislation.

“Without this action, a telecommunications company would have been allowed by the state legislature to place up to a 50-foot pole in front of anyone’s home without input or recourse by the homeowners,” Brainard said. “The local taxpayers’ right to control their streets through their locally elected officials would have been taken away. This would have impacted housing values and made it harder to lure businesses with good jobs to our city.”

A last-minute change to Senate Bill 213 allows local officials to declare current underground utility areas and exempt the locations from the law, as long as they do so by May 1, 2017.

Carmel held a special BPW meeting in time to pass a resolution that established an Underground and Buried Utility District throughout the City of Carmel. The board also granted utility easements to help protect private property owners.

The exemption doesn’t mean Carmel won’t get 5G coverage, Brainard said. He noted the exemption doesn’t mean the city won’t allow any new cell towers.

“They (telecommunications companies) still have the right to apply for a waiver,” Brainard said. “They have the right to apply, and the Board of Public Works will say yes or no.”

Brainard said through the process Carmel residents and planning officials have an opportunity to provide input and review proposed cell structures.

Brainard credits the city’s legal team, including City Attorney Ashley Ulbricht and attorney John Molitor, who works with Carmel Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, for noting the last-minute provision.

Some state legislators argued in favor of the bill, insisting the antennas and poles are unobtrusive and will help improve internet and cellphone coverage in rural areas. Brainard disagrees, and he thanked State Reps. Jerry Torr and Donna Schaibley for voting against the bill.

“I would suggest you look at the amount of contributions from telecommunications companies to our state representatives and senators,” Brainard said. “And you can quote me on it.”


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