Tower control hangs in balance

Local communities draft resolutions for maintaining rights

HANCOCK COUNTY — Hancock County communities scrambled Friday to take steps required for local boards to keep control over where utility poles for cell service can be installed.

From Greenfield to McCordsville, officials called last-minute meetings this week to draft resolutions that will allow them to decide whether small cellphone signal boosters installed atop utility poles can be put in public rights of way.

The eleventh-hour maneuvering came after a bill approved last week by the Indiana General Assembly stripped local control to allow cellphone poles as high as 50 feet tall to be installed in the right of way every 500 feet. Local officials said the bill paves the way for those poles — which, though significantly smaller than a traditional cell tower, some still consider an eyesore — to be set up in neighborhoods or downtown districts, impeding local beautification efforts. Traditionally, utility lines in those areas are buried underground.

The bill aims to make it easier for cellphone companies to install the poles they said are necessary to improve cell service. But local officials say it’s important for them to be able to prohibit the poles from being set up in neighborhoods or near people’s property.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has yet to sign the bill — which would be retroactive, taking effect Sunday — into law, but it gives officials until only Monday to pass resolutions that would allow them to block towers from being installed.

The bill states communities must allow the poles in public rights of way unless they’ve deemed the area an underground utility district, meaning utilities there are buried so they can’t be seen.

Local lawmakers Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, and Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, voted against the final version of the bill that was sent to the governor for approval.

Crider said early on, he supported the bill in hopes changes would be made down the line to lift some of the restrictions on local control to offer the cities and towns he represents more say-so. The bill evolved throughout the session, but he still couldn’t support the final version, he said.

Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell said he learned Wednesday the city would need to take action quickly and called a board of public works and safety meeting for Friday afternoon.

The board voted to require all existing and future utilities — including poles for communication — erected in the public right of way to be buried.

McCordsville, Fortville and Cumberland town councils also met Friday, passing similar rules.

Fewell said the city wants to retain control to ensure neighbors don’t see unsightly poles being installed near their backyards.

“We just don’t want to have towers and poles popping up everywhere,” he said. “People don’t want to see that from their back doors.”

City officials said they haven’t had many requests from companies to install cellphone poles — typically, companies just ask to add their cellphone signal boosters to utility poles already in place. But as cell companies move toward 5G networks, many new poles could go up.

After Fortville Town Council president Bill Hiday and his colleagues passed a similar resolution, Hiday expressed a bit of frustration with state leaders for having forced municipalities to quickly push through drafting new rules.

“The cellphone lobby must have been strong this session,” he joked. “But we had to do something to be in control. We had to put our own protection in place.”

Staff writer Caitlin VanOverberghe contributed to this report.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.