Whether it’s referred to as small cell wireless service facilities or 5G, its arrival to the Town of Telluride is inevitable. In anticipation of the next generation cell service, which calls for, as opposed to 4G’s large towers, multiple transmission facilities placed within urban centers, town officials have mobilized legislation that, as town planning and building director Ron Quarles told Town Council at its Tuesday meeting, will control the impacts of the new technology. Following a morning work session, council unanimously passed on first reading a new set of rules to add to the land use code.
Telecommunications operations enjoy state and federal protections via the 1996 Telecommunications Act that allows service providers to establish facilities on public rights of way regardless of local zoning. The Federal Communications Commission also has orders that, Quarles said, imposes strict limits on local government to accommodate small cell wireless.
“The order does not permit jurisdictions from prohibiting antennas and equipment in the rights of way and they can be installed in any zoning district. We can't zone them out, regardless of what the zoning district is,” Quarles said of the FCC orders. “It even goes as far as setting presumptive fees for applications and establishing shot clocks or review periods to accommodate the review process. Shot clocks are generally 60 days for pre-existing structures and 90 days for any new applications or new antenna and equipment. In essence, the federal and state limits pretty much treat this new technology similar to a public utility or a utility in the right of way.”
What municipalities like Telluride can do — and now, have done — is create ordinances that minimize how the installations meld into downtown environments.
“We can control how they will be least impactful to the built environment. And that would include placements, locations, sightings, spacing, designs, appearance, heights and assurances as far as abandonments, maintenance licenses and agreements,” Quarles explained.
Given the inevitability of 5G’s arrival, a committee comprised of members of both the town’s planning and zoning (P&Z) and historic and architectural (HARC) commissions was formed in early 2020 to start working on parameters that would govern aspects such as facility placement and appearance, among other considerations, with consulting assistance from HR Green, which advised them on the technical aspects of what 5G implementation requires.
According to Quarles’ memo to council, although small cell wireless facilities will be smaller than the existing macro cell technology, equipment and structures will be far more numerous within the town, placed at lower heights and only several hundred feet apart. The proposed legislation crafted and recommended for approval by both P&Z and HARC, “were therefore drafted with this standard in mind in an attempt to balance the rights of wireless providers under the current applicable laws to locate these facilities in the town against the town’s safety and historic aesthetic interests.”
It is most likely that a telecommunications provider, such as Verizon, will prefer to place the poles within rights of way, rather than enter into licensing agreements with private property owners. The facilities, which are more discreet than the current towers used by 4G technology, are mostly mounted on and within light pole-type fixtures. Any exterior hardware, Quarles said, is approximately three cubic feet. The issue with 5G is that, unlike its 4G counterpart which can provide coverage for miles, 5G only transmits several hundred feet, thus requiring far more infrastructure.
The new ordinance addresses the potential visual clutter by applying a number of general standards, including the use of non-reflective materials, no side mounted facilities, no above ground cabling, minimum spacing of 300 feet, no external signage and other parameters. With most of town’s infrastructure located underground, standard 5G mounting locations such as traffic signal or power poles are not available so, according to Quarles’ memo, “future structures within the rights-of-way will either occur as modified replacement pedestrian light poles or as free-standing poles.” Design guidelines are written into the ordinance that ensure the poles resemble current light poles, as well as other measures crafted to minimize visual impacts by requiring equipment be placed inside the pole or base. The poles will be no more than 20 feet in height. If building or wall-mounted, facilities could not be placed on historically rated structures.
Town public works director and acting co-town manager Paul Ruud commented that the wisdom of creating local ordinances ahead of the eventual arrival of 5G was unquestioned, but that he still felt the town had some time to prepare.
“Remember that these polls need both electricity and fiber optic running to them,” Ruud said. “And some of that is not really readily available just yet. So I still think we have just a little bit of time. I think it's great that we've dove into our regulations when we did.”
He also suggested a potential strategy for further minimizing the ability of protected utility interests to commandeer the town’s rights of way — vacate those deemed appropriate for abandonment.
Council member Dan Enright said it was imperative that town officials work to fully inform the local citizenry of the upcoming proliferation of utility work.
“We need to be public information officers for the town and make sure that our citizens know that this is something through the Telecommunications Act, (that) we can't stop … we can only regulate and enforce because it's coming,” Enright said. “There's already clear public interest from at least one telecommunication company (Verizon), and we have to have these standards in place for when it is coming. And when it does come, that's when I expect the pushback when people actually start to see it. (We need to make) sure that everyone understands that we as council and planning and zoning and HARC are doing all of this due diligence.”
Mayor DeLanie Young reinforced the inevitability of 5G’s arrival.
“We cannot say no to this,” Young said. “It’s when, not if.”
Visit telluride-co.gov to view the complete ordinance.