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Robert Gehrke: Salt Lake City is grappling with 5G cell towers. Your city may be next.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It was about a year ago that a friend got an unwelcome surprise when — completely without warning — an ugly pole was plopped in front of his Salt Lake City home.

It was the first 5G wireless tower I remember seeing. Since then, of course, they’ve sprouted up all over town to the frustration of residents who get to look out their window and see what amounts to a giant antenna, placed there without regard for views or neighborhood aesthetics.

The problem will only get worse. That’s because while these towers can blast huge amounts of data to your cellphone or wireless devices — 100 times the 4G technology they’re replacing — they have a limited range with each tower only able to send its signal about 100 meters.

That means to build out a 5G network across the entire valley, companies will need thousands of these relay towers. Then multiply that by the number of providers each building their own networks — four currently have agreements with Salt Lake City to install devices — and you can see how quickly this can get out of hand.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) A 5G cell tower stands near the intersection of State Street and 700 South in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

My colleague Leia Larsen compiled a list of more than 250 permits that have been issued to install “small cell wireless facilities,” as they are called and about another 300 have been approved by the city.

In many instances, these wireless devices can go on top of existing utility poles — assuming they’re able to bear the weight — or on buildings, in which case they can be less intrusive (although they still need a box filled with equipment installed adjacent to the pole).

But where there isn’t a suitable existing structure, companies plant these 25- to 30-foot-tall black metal poles.

And, according to city lawyers, there isn’t a lot that Salt Lake or any other city can do to limit or plan where these eyesores end up.

That’s because in 2018 the Utah Legislature passed SB189, granting these telecommunications companies almost unfettered access to build in any public right of way — meaning roads, medians, parking strips, sidewalks and the like.

“The laws that have been put in place are extremely industry-friendly,” Kimberly Chytraus, a city attorney, told members of the Salt Lake City Council earlier this month.

Cities can set some design requirements for the poles — height, diameter and color standards, for example — but if a telecom company wants to build it on a residential street or in front of a historic home, a city can’t insist it be moved around the corner to a busier road.

That means as new towers have been going up, particularly in neighborhoods, new complaints are being registered with City Hall. Salt Lake City resident Brad Bush has begun to organize upset residents in an attempt to put pressure on a city government he thinks could do more — if it wanted to.

“They feign impotence when there is more they can do, but they wave their alligator arms instead,” said Bush. “With the city’s current mindset of ‘there’s nothing we can do,’ they’re literally letting these cell tower developers run rampant.”

Bush has consulted with New York telecommunications attorney Andrew Campanelli, who says federal telecommunications law and court rulings leave cities more room to regulate towers than many think and many cities have crafted useful ordinances. But wireless companies have convinced state lawmakers to pass laws that give them complete authority to put towers wherever they want.

“They are intentionally designed to be deceptive,” Campinelli said.

Now Salt Lake City is studying whether they have any latitude to do more within the confines of the state law, including drafting an ordinance requiring homeowners to be notified before towers go in. The city is considering requiring the wireless companies to show it would be impractical to use an existing pole.

“While we are very limited in our ability to change much about the towers,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement, “my administration has been working to identify the places where it’s possible for us to make changes and where we have room to improve our local ordinance so that we can better mitigate the visual impact of the towers.”

Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan said he’s worried when six providers are building their networks and all the poles that will mean. He said he hopes these companies will recognize they need to be partners in the community and be willing to work with the city voluntarily to minimize impacts — which could mean agreeing to share towers, utilizing more existing poles or imposing additional cosmetic standards.

“These could be in your front yard, so we need to come up with a better solution than just letting [the companies] go carte blanche,” Dugan said. “I’m hopeful we can get somewhere, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Unless anyone thinks this is just a Salt Lake City issue, it’s not. These towers and these issues will be coming to your town, if they’re not there already. We need a better balance between property rights and innovation — and that should start with revisiting Utah’s law that keeps cities from representing their constituents.

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