St. Louis Park approves agreement with Verizon to install small cell phone antennas

Verizon is seeking to install small cell phone antennas, like this one shown in Minneapolis, in the West End area of St. Louis Park. (Submitted photo)
Verizon is seeking to install small cell phone antennas, like this one shown in Minneapolis, in the West End area of St. Louis Park. (Submitted photo)

The St. Louis Park City Council reluctantly approved an agreement with Verizon to install small cell phone antennas on utility poles.

Separately, the city built a 70-foot tower of its own in Westwood Hills Nature Center, but the new tower supports water meter reading signals rather than cell phone signals.

The agreement with Verizon, which the council approved 6-1 Feb. 21, arose after telecommunications providers approached the city in 2014, according to Phillip Elkin, senior engineering project manager for the city. The companies sought the city’s permission to place antennas on city right-of-way on streetlights.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” Elkin said.

The city put together a task force of staff members to study the issue.

“It’s important for our residents to have this technology, to improve their cellular service and data on their cell phones, but we had concerns about how it would work within our infrastructures, how it would be maintained, if it would be blocking traffic or blocking sight lines or just how it would work with our infrastructure that we needed to maintain,” Elkin said.

The task force ultimately came up with the idea for a master license agreement with each major cell phone provider that sought an agreement. The agreement would allow providers to submit an application for each pole that would host an antenna. City staff members would review each application and approve or deny it based on its merits.

“This is the route we’re taking,” Elkin said. “We’re working with the providers for the best possible solution.”

However, not all area cities have decided to enter into licensing agreements with cell phone providers.

“As a result, we see telecoms taking legislative action to get statewide approval to put these anywhere they want,” Elkin said. “We strongly discourage that. We want to work with the applicant.”

The League of Minnesota Cities opposes the bill.

Multiple versions of the legislation have been introduced, City Attorney Soren Mattick said. He speculated that a version could pass and that the version could make St. Louis Park’s agreements null and void in an effort to create uniformity. Cell phone providers that support the legislation have argued that it would be unfair for providers with such agreements to pay fees established by the city while providers that had not established such agreements before state legislation would be subject to different rules.

“I think you’ll lose some of what you negotiated here,” Mattick said.

Of the proposed legislation, Councilmember Anne Mavity said, “It would remove cities’ ability to control what’s getting put up in their own city.”

As introduced, the bill that would relate to the small antennas would allow local governments to require reasonable accommodations for decorative utility poles. It would ban local governments from instituting a moratorium on permits related to the devices.

The bill states that wireless providers may place small wireless facilities on utility poles without being required to apply for any individual license, franchise or other agreement. The local government could charge “a reasonable annual recurring rate” that could not exceed a rate in a federal formula.

St. Louis Park’s master license agreement with Verizon calls for the company to pay $1,500 a year for rent per pole, $1,500 a year for electricity per pole, a $1,000 application fee per pole, a one-time administration fee of $2,500 and a $5,000 security deposit to ensure the antenna is removed at the end of its lifetime.

A city staff report states Verizon seeks to replace three existing light poles along Park Place Boulevard in the West End area with reinforced poles. The new poles, which would resemble the original poles, would include mounting locations for cell phone equipment.

Mayor Jake Spano said, “I’m not wild about having these. They feel a little bit like an eyesore.”

He said he respected the fact that folks want to have strong cell phone coverage, but said he was concerned “that our light poles didn’t start to look like Christmas trees or something with stuff hung up all over them.”

Nevertheless, Spano said he would support the agreement because cell phone service is viewed as a utility and a company may be able to add the antennas in the future with or without the city’s approval.

“It is at least in my mind making the best of a bad situation,” Spano said. “But who knows. It may be moot in four months.”

Councilmember Tim Brausen said the agreement supported a city goal to make St. Louis Park a technologically advanced and connected community.

Councilmember Steve Hallfin voted against the agreement.

Nature center tower

None of the council members expressed concern about aesthetics when approving the city’s own 70-foot tower in Westwood Hills Nature Center in December.

The new tower is about 200 feet west of the western end of Westwood Hills Drive in the northeast section of the nature center, near the residence of the nature center manager.

The communications tower is intended to resolve the difficulty the city has experienced in receiving electronic water meter signals in the outer edges of the city, including the Westwood Hills Neighborhood, according to a city staff report.

“The reason why staff chose this site is because this is the highest elevation in the community and this is the most convenient area for a communications tower to collect readings reliably,” Community Development Intern Henry Pan said during a Dec. 19 council meeting.

The pole itself is not lit, but a light is mounted about 20 feet up the pole to provide lighting for a small parking lot in the area during events, Pan said.

The tower has a slim profile and looks similar to a nearby pole in an effort to minimize the impact to the surroundings, Pan said.

One person suggested camouflaging the pole, but Pan did not indicate the city would do so. Another comment expressed concerns about interference with radio signals, but Pan said the tower should not create interference. He added that it does not create a precedent for cell phone towers in the future because of a zoning code that limits communications towers to one per parcel.

A Department of Natural Resources employee who lives in the neighborhood did express concern that the project might not be consistent with state and federal grant agreements used to purchase land for the nature center and that the tower might cause the land to fall out of use for recreation, Pan said.

“After discussions with the DNR, they concluded that this project would be contributory to outdoor recreation activities and therefore this will be allowed,” Pan said.

Planning and Zoning Supervisor Sean Walther said in an email that the pole installation enhanced the Brick House, a property used for nature center programming, trail access, rental for small meeting groups and seasonal storage of programming supplies.

“Previously there was no lighting for the parking lot at this location and it was very dark for evening participants,” Walther said. “There was also a need for additional security, primarily security cameras. The city combined these needs and helped provide a safer environment for Brick House users by adding the lighting and eventually cameras on a monopole structure located in the parking lot area.”

Other security and lighting poles exist in the nature center’s main parking lot.

Walther said the city added similar antennas at two other locations in the city to complement other antennas located on the city’s three elevated water towers.

Walther noted that the white pole installed at the nature center “is not nearly of the magnitude and appearance of the more typical macro cell tower used by commercial carriers.”

He added, “There is no intent to support commercial carrier equipment on this pole. In fact, the pole was not designed to mount such equipment.”

Although planning commission discussion included the potential for the disruption of migratory movements of birds, the commission voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the tower.

Council members made little comment before approving the project.

Brausen, who represents the area, said, “I haven’t heard any objection to it from anybody.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]