LAWRENCEVILLE -- Public hearings on the placement of cell towers could soon become a "farce," if proposed legislation clears the General Assembly, commissioners said Tuesday.
A week after Gwinnett's County Attorney Van Stephens testified in a state House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee hearing on a bill authored by the committee chairman, Stephens told commissioners the proposal, House Bill 176, would likely strip local governments from any right to deny the placement of a tower in a residential area.
"Essentially, we have no way of denying them," Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said, summing up a string of provisions Stephens outlined. "We'll be put through a public hearing process, where people think we have the ability to say yes or no. ... It sounds like it's going to be a farce."
Already faced with few parameters to deny a request based on federal law -- since issues like health concerns cannot be considered and radio frequency needs are hard to contradict -- the new bill would put state limitations on governments using a search ring to find a more suitable site for a tower when neighbors object.
"We will not have a practical means of denying a cell tower within a residential area," Stephens said.
With much of Gwinnett's major corridors and business districts already extensively covered by telecommunication service, the primary need currently exists in residential communities, Stephens said, and those typically cause concern for the community.
Stephens objected to committee members' statements that the proposal would not infringe on the county's ability to enforce zoning laws. Some provisions, he said, could even wipe away imposed buffers because the law would allow automatic height increases for co-locating and few restrictions on increases to equipment compounds on the ground.
While the committee changed the bill slightly, Stephens said members would not consider allowing the county's current practice of forcing companies to set aside a bond to remove a tower when the technology provides it will no longer be necessary. This is causing a concern that companies could abandon a cell tower site, leaving the county to pay for removal.
The bill also contains provisions that would automatically approve an application within 150 days and would prohibit a government from forcing a company to place a tower on government property. Stephens said the county does not force any company to do so, but has allowed several placements to help neighborhoods. In the new law, a third party, not the county, would determine the price of a lease.
In the end, commissioners had little hope of stopping the bill from becoming law, and even considered asking that the public hearing requirement be taken out entirely so as not to be disingenuous to the public.
The bill passed out of committee last week and is expected to come to the House floor once it is considered by the Rules Committee. It would then go on to the Senate for consideration before heading to the governor's desk.
"It's a futile battle. This thing is going to pass," Nash said. "Our best bet is to work with someone in the Senate to try to put some amendments in it."
For the first time in years, commissioners voted against hiring a contracted lobbyist to help with legislative matters, although a county staffer is tasked with lobbying at the General Assembly.
Nash said she does not believe the change has impacted the county's influence in this matter.
"I think having a contracting lobbyist on this bill would make absolutely no difference," Nash said. "We can't compete with the type of lobbyists involved in the telecommunications industry. ... We're going to figure out how to live with it it sounds like."