In a 13-7 vote, the county board passed an amendment to a zoning ordinance that will regulate telecommunication towers. The application fee to build a tower will remain at $500, but with some exemptions removed, a local internet provider may find the fees cost prohibitive.
Discussion prior to the vote found supervisors, primarily in the northern tip of the county, concerned with inhibiting expanded internet service to remote parts of the peninsula. Members of the Resource Planning Committee and the Planning Department ensured that this was regulation, not restriction.
“We are regulating, not to impede. Please don’t get confused with that,” said Ken Fisher, chair of the Resource Planning Committee (RPC). “We are not keeping anybody from supplying this to us.”
But Kevin Voss, owner of Door County Broadband (DCB), sees the future impact on his company as a blow to internet service across the peninsula.
“The biggest change I see occurring is that Door County has just raised the barrier to entry for property owners,” said Voss. “Previously, if a location had marginal service, a lot of times we would roll the dice.”
Now, Voss will have to pay the application fee, which his shorter towers were previously exempt from, in addition to clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It is putting additional requirements on the process,” said Sam Perlman, Economic Development Manager at the Door County Economic Development Corporation. “There are costs associated with those requirements. Those costs make it more difficult for those service providers to provide those services. Those costs will ultimately get passed along to the end user, making the service more expensive, and in some cases making it out of the realm of possibility because it’s just too expensive. So we are disappointed the county board approved it.”
Also objecting to the ordinance was Linda Underwood, superintendent of the Sevastopol School District, who sent a letter to the board of supervisors.
“The lack of high-speed internet for many of our Sevastopol students and staff is a real challenge to our ability to leverage time and resources for effective instruction,” she wrote. “I’ve heard conversations about economic development, access for existing businesses and residents, and the hope that seasonal residents would stay here longer if high-speed internet were available. What I haven’t heard is how lack of connectivity in our families’ homes is a detriment to student achievement and adequate preparation for careers and post-secondary education….We had hoped that high- speed internet would grow and become available to more families – thinking it was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, the proposed ordinance (specifically, section .03, I believe) inhibits increased access. Just when we need to be clearing the way for increased access, we seem to be looking at a way to stymy it. I hope that you will consider the effects of stalled access to high-speed internet for the students of the county as well as for residents and businesses. Our students have only today. They can’t afford to wait years for increased access.”
The county has had an ordinance governing communication towers for 20 years and county officials stated that the changes were not drastic. They include excluding towers from being built in wetlands or in the shore land, allowing towers in residential areas, removing exemptions based on the type of tower and removing the requirement for a public hearing if a tower is a certain height.
The planning department was forced to rewrite the ordinance after the 2013 state budget changed the way counties can regulate communication towers.
“It said, if you’re going to regulate towers, this is how you’re going to regulate them,” said Mariah Goode of the Planning Department in a July interview. Local government doesn’t have to regulate towers, but there are some incentives to do so.
“We could vote this down,” said Susan Kohout from District 6. “That will mean a tower can go anywhere. Possibly in a wetland, possibly close to shore, two inches from the neighbors lot line. If the unthinkable happens and the tower falls, there would be no language requiring liability coverage paying for the damages.”
Fees for putting up a tower have been at $500 since 2004 with minor modifications costing an additional $50. Many major communication companies can incorporate these fees, but local companies, such as DCB, sought exemption from the fees by making its towers shorter.
The 2004 ordinance included a height exemption, which DCB pursued, allowing it to construct towers without applying to the county. Although the application fee remained unchanged, the exemption is gone and now DCB must pay for the application fee on all of its future towers.
In response, Voss predicts that individual communities will respond with ordinances of their own.
State law dictates that a town can pass its own ordinance on communication towers, making the county ordinance void within town limits.
“So what we are hoping is that the towns just opt out,” said Voss. “Door County is setting themselves up for a patchwork of ordinances where they do it one way in one town and different in another.”
Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas stated that in discussion with some telecommunications companies, different interpretations of the state statute may be subject to litigation.
“AT&T, Insight and Cellcom I think have an honest disagreement with my interpretation of the statute,” said Thomas. “We agreed to disagree on what the statute permits and does not permit. We are well aware that the statute in its present form might face a legal challenge.”
The Planning Department used ordinances drafted from other counties around the state in coming up with the new telecommunications ordinance. Thomas stated that there are no public lawsuits that can shed light on the legal weight of these ordinances.
The county will wait and see what the legal and communicative impacts from the ordinance are, if there are any.