County deputy attorney Joe Atkins said Parsons’ bill “created a lot of fury at the end of the session,” and while it didn’t pass, Atkins expects it to resurface when the Legislature convenes next month.
When a cell tower carrier asks to place a tower on county property, the county doesn’t go through a zoning process, but enters into a lease, Atkins said.
Atkins said one provision in Parsons’ House Bill 176 would eliminate the county’s ability to decide how much it would charge for a lease.
“We try to charge a fair-market rate,” Atkins said. “We would be opposed to any provision that would interfere with that business relationship that we have with these cell tower companies.”
The county has 16 cell towers on its property that have generated $1.3 million in revenue during fiscal 2013, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.
Atkins raised objections to the bill at the request of county Chairman Tim Lee during a recent breakfast between commissioners and Cobb lawmakers.
Giving up control?
There is also the matter of cell towers built into an existing structure, such as the bell tower of a church. These “stealth towers” are popular with residents, Atkins said, because they are less intrusive.
“However, some of the language in this (Parsons) bill says if someone wants to put one of those in an existing structure we basically have no control. That is a concern for us,” he said. “We would be opposed to that.”
Another objection is that while other zoning matters can be analyzed in house, the county uses consultants with cell towers because it would be cost prohibitive to keep a radio frequency engineer on staff, he said.
“They do charge for their time,” he said.
The county passes the consultant’s bill — typically $3,500, depending on the complexity of the application — on to the carrier or cell tower company that applies.
Parsons’ bill would cap the fee, Atkins said.
Parsons defends his bill Parsons, who chairs the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee, was not at the breakfast to defend his bill, but told the MDJ later that the legislation made it out of his committee earlier this year, only to stall in the Rules Committee.
“It was held up in Rules because of some questions and some objections from the Georgia Municipal Association and the (Association of County Commissioners of Georgia),” he said.
Parsons said he filed the bill because of the increasing demand for bandwidth as the population moves to smartphones. Another reason was to streamline the filing process for a cell tower with a county or municipal government, since it’s different across the state.
One provision that upset GMA and ACCG was the timeline Parsons inserted in the bill for approving or rejecting a new or existing tower.
“We have 180 counties in the state and they all do this differently,” Parsons said. “Some of them approve these things pretty quickly and some of them drag them out. Some of them demand higher permit fees than others. It’s a source of money for the counties and the cities. The more money they can drag out of the cell companies, that’s more money that they have.”
His bill calls for the government to approve or deny the application of a new tower within 150 days of it being filed. The bill calls for approving or rejecting an application to modify an existing tower within 90 days. Parsons said that timeline comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines, which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As for capping consultant fees, “A lot of these consultants have been making a lot of money because the longer they can drag out the permitting process, these telecommunications consultants that deal with cell towers and cellular issues, the more money that they make,” he said.
All about bandwidth
Parsons has asked the major telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon to meet with GMA and ACCG officials to reach a middle ground before he brings the bill back up in January.
“I think and I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic that we will have a bill by the time the session starts in a few weeks that we can all move forward with,” he said.
Providing a community with enough bandwidth, Parsons said, is important.
“It would be an inhibitor to economic development if we don’t,” he said. “It creates problems for public safety if we don’t. It creates problems with people conducting their daily business if we don’t. The cellular bandwidth has to be there. And the cities know that and the counties know that.”