Governor Signs Off on SB405

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to ease siting of small cells. Specifically, SB 405 allows the construction of structures less than 50 feet tall without a special exception, special-use permit or variance from local governments.

Bill sponsor State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, told The Daily Progress that wireless companies are expanding services in states where they can have a “certainty of plans,” including streamlined application processes and fee structures. “Each of the 130-some different jurisdictions in the commonwealth of Virginia make individual determinations, and when you’re building an infrastructure system that crosses multiple jurisdictions, that system does not provide for that certainty,” McDougle said at a state Senate committee hearing on the bill in February. Some of his rural constituents can’t get 3G or 4G.  

At the same meeting, a Verizon representative said without the bill, it would be hard to “pay the prices” and go through the hoops they’ve had to jump through in the past “to get a tower built” for the number of small cells needed for 5G. There will still be a need for towers in rural areas, because that’s the best way to provide service, but in a more urban area or where the population’s greater, we’re going to small cells,” the carrier representative said, according to The Daily Progress.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, as well as several wireless companies and industry associations, supported the measure. But the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, which represent local governments, opposed it. “The bill really does limit our authority to regulate small cells,” said Bill Fritz, chief of special projects for Albemarle County, at that meeting. According to Fritz, the new measure is related to one that passed in 2017 that said localities cannot require a special exception or special-use permit for small cells installed on existing structures where providers have permission to co-locate equipment. Furthermore, the legislation requires localities to make a decision on completed applications within 60 days and caps fees that can be charged.

SB 405 also calls for creating a stakeholder group by December 15 comprised of various state departments, industry and affected communities to develop a plan for expanding access to wireless services in unserved and underserved areas. Supervisors chairwoman Ann Mallek told The Daily Progress, she wanted the bill to be vetoed because the wireless companies are asking to be treated like utilities but not having to follow local rules. “They’re still saying ‘we have to have all this help,’ but they’re only using that help in the areas where the market is strong and they’re very successfully doing the work,” she said. “They’re not using the money that they get, or the benefits from these extra legislation pieces, to get into the rural areas.”

May 9, 2018

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