By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s mayor and Township Council are opposing legislation they say would further limit the township’s ability to say no when a utility wants to install equipment on public property.

The council on Jan. 18 passed a resolution opposing legislation that aims to set uniform local regulatory standards statewide for small wireless facilities – the kind used for 5G mobile service.

Because 5G signals don’t travel as far as those from older wireless standards, it’s not typically deployed with large antennas on towers, but instead smaller and more numerous antennas, the New Jersey League of Municipalities noted in a blog post addressing the legislation in late 2020

“Wireless service providers have offered that the most efficient and cost effective way is to place these antenna and small cell facilities within the public rights-of-way,” the league wrote.

The resolution states that while the township wants its residents to have equal access to the best wired and wireless broadband services, it also seeks to determine the design and location of the broadband infrastructure, and to have the right to recover all of its expenses for use of public property. The bill would allow telecommunications companies to bypass local zoning laws when installing 5G facilities.

The bill was first introduced in the 2020-21 legislative session as S-2674 and A-1116, sponsored by then-state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Sen. Troy Singleton, and Assembly members Carol Murphy, Louis Greenwald and Wayne DeAngelo. A-1116 cleared the Assembly last year and was reintroduced on Jan. 11 as A-471. 

But, according to Montclair’s resolution: “The legislation seeks to preempt and supersede local regulation of small cell (5G) deployment within the municipal rights-of-way.”

Mayor Sean Spiller said that although municipalities are currently restricted in their ability to decide where cell towers or cell boxes are placed, the legislation goes too far in curbing all municipal land use control. 

Although several council members said they don’t agree with passing overarching resolutions based on principle in opposition to state issues, this one hits home, Councilman Peter Yacobellis said.

“If the public isn’t paying attention, it could be a power that gets taken away from us — the local government and the people. I think we as a municipality should have a say in the placement and design of 5G infrastructure,” Yacobellis said. 

The resolution is only a statement of the council’s position; it doesn’t set any enforceable township regulation or policy. 

Under the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, no local or state statute may prohibit the ability to provide interstate or intrastate telecommunications services. If a utility’s right to access application is denied, substantial detriment to the township must apply, under the act. 

Montclair’s resolution also states that the legislation would provide broadband telecommunications providers with “favorable and discounted access to public rights-of-way without requiring these cost savings be passed on to customers, or requiring broadband infrastructure buildout necessary to help bridge the digital divide.”

Montclair residents have successfully won fights against telecommunications providers who were seeking to install facilities before.

In 2019, after looking into Rosedale Cemetery and Nishuane School as potential sites, New Cingular Wireless PCS proposed an AT&T telecommunications cell tower facility at 310 and 320 Orange Road. The company had proposed installing a 65-foot monopole containing six concealed antennas, as well as a generator and related equipment, at the site of a mixed-use building at 310 Orange Road, plus 12 antennas on the roof of the adjacent building at 320 Orange Road.

After numerous meetings with residents who were against the facility, the company pulled its application to Montclair’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in early 2020.

At the time, then-Township attorney Ira Karasick said under FCC rules, the zoning board could not consider testimony about health concerns from residents worried about the monopole. He advised that the Township Council had no direct authority on decision-making related to the application, and that the Zoning Board would have to show substantial detriment to the township to deny it. 

In 2018, Gray Street residents opposed the installation of the small cells by Verizon Wireless on their street, contending the aesthetics of the boxes could lower property values and jeopardize their health. 

“The residents rallied and we were able to fight it [the installation of small cells],” Councilwoman Robin Schlager said at the Jan. 18 meeting.

A small cell facility, about the size of a pizza box, includes radio equipment and antennas, and can be placed on structures such as streetlights, the sides of buildings or poles every few blocks.

Councilman David Cummings, speaking at the Jan. 18 council meeting, said the infrastructure wouldn’t be “aesthetically pleasing to a suburban township.”

“Or our tree-lined streets could be potentially pole-ridden every 20 yards,” Cummings said. 

Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said that although residents want to take advantage of the newer technology now offered, the town needs to be mindful of where it’s placed.

Yacobellis said although infrastructure installation is consumer-driven and many want the most advanced technology, the township should still have a say where it is placed on “Montclair ground.” 

According to Yacobellis, Montclair had been looking into an ordinance to attempt to control the design of boxes and placement of poles before the most recent state legislation was proposed.   

The New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association also have issued statements opposing the bills.