Two days after the Door County Board of Supervisors passed a new ordinance regulating communication towers, the Town of Liberty Grove sent out its next board meeting agenda, which included adopting an ordinance of its own.
“I’m sure they’re doing it because they think the county ordinance is too restrictive,” said Mariah Goode, head of the Door County Planning Department.
The agenda sent out by Liberty Grove on Friday, Oct. 2, for a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 7, included addressing a proposed ordinance on telecommunication towers. The meeting packet also included a draft of an ordinance that Liberty Grove would work from.
But Town Chairman John Lowry stated in an email that the Board would remove the discussion from the agenda until the town attorney has approved the final draft. Lowry hopes public discussion will take place at the board’s next meeting on Oct. 21.
The county ordinance that the supervisors adopted on a 13-7 vote at their Sept. 29 meeting drew criticism from local officials and businesses for restricting internet service. While the county maintains that the new ordinance is less restrictive by lifting requirements on public hearings and allowing towers in all types of zoning districts, other changes will have an impact on local service providers.
Kevin Voss, owner of Door County Broadband (DCB), was hit particularly hard with the new ordinance, which requires a more extensive application and a $500 application fee that he was previously exempt from. His prediction that, “Door County is setting themselves up for a patchwork of ordinances where they do it one way in one town and different in another,” seems to be coming true.
This patchwork is made possible by state legislation that gives towns the power to nullify county ordinances on communication towers by writing their own ordinances.
“If a town enacts an ordinance… after a county has so acted, the county ordinance does not apply, and may not be enforced, in the town,” reads Wisconsin State Statute 64.0404.
Goode has never seen this kind of legislation that allows towns to override county ordinances.
“Usually if the county and the town have an ordinance, you have to comply with both,” she said.
The county was forced to rewrite its ordinance after the 2013 state budget made the original county ordinance null and void. The county hoped that an ordinance would prevent the unregulated expansion of communication towers in places that were not favorable to residents.
But the county did not include an exemption for towers that fell below a certain height, an exemption that Voss used to provide towers to rural parts of the county that larger service providers would not touch.
The height exemption exempted DCB from the $500 application fee and federal clearance hurdles, which Voss believes allowed his company to put up more towers in more areas, thus providing wireless internet to the rural northern tip of the county and underserved areas in Southern Door.
DCB and Liberty Grove have been collaborating in this effort until the county ordinance made the project cost prohibitive.
“We worked very hard to cooperate, to encourage the various providers of services to do more in Liberty Grove,” said David Studebaker, chair of the Technical Committee in Liberty Grove. “It turns out that all of the larger organizations have strategic plans where Liberty Grove is not a highlight for them. We are a little bitty dot on the map.”
Goode commented on the lack of exemptions, stating, “In 2013, the state stepped in and created regulations. If you are going to regulate communication towers, this is how you’re going to regulate them… It doesn’t say you can’t exempt towers based on height, but it doesn’t say that you can… It’s been the opinion of the county’s engineering consultants and then again the county corporation counsel that we cannot do that anymore. We cannot exempt certain kinds of towers nor certain types of providers.”
Now Liberty Grove seeks to exempt itself from the county ordinance by adopting one of its own.
“From the [county’s] original draft that came out in March, none of the issues that we were addressing directly changed in the final document,” said Studebaker. “We really tried to provide input to recommend changes but it didn’t happen. Given that it didn’t happen and we have an option, I’m sure that Liberty Grove will move in a direction to remove these roadblocks from the advancement of internet services in Liberty Grove.”
The ordinance in the Oct. 7 meeting packet on Liberty Grove’s website was more of a “placeholder” than the true ordinance that Liberty Grove plans to adopt, said Studebaker. Lowry had already received feedback on this placeholder, leading to the decision to hold conversation about the ordinance until the town attorney reviews it.
“The only reason we would be acting first is because myself and others have been working on this for some time,” said Studebaker, who believes that Liberty Grove will move forward with its own ordinance in the coming weeks. And he doesn’t think it will stop in Liberty Grove.
“I’m hopeful that there are other towns that will do the same. How it all happens whether towns do something cooperatively or they all operate independently, I don’t know.”