RYE — Despite technological advancements that allow people to instantaneously connect with someone on the other side of the globe, officials fear not enough has been done to ensure locals can actually take advantage of the gadgets at their fingertips — particularly during emergencies.
A number of Seacoast communities struggle with cell-phone reception, particularly in low-lying beach areas and on days with a heavy load on the local network.
At a glance
While many types of wireless communication projects no longer need to go through the municipal site plan review process thanks to RSA 12-K, variances and a review are required if the application classifies as a “substantial modification.” RSA 12-K states that distinction is bestowed on a proposed personal wireless service facility that:
— Increases the permitted vertical height of a tower or the vertical height of an existing mount by more than 10 percent or the height of one additional antenna array, whichever is greater;
— In any way (excluding the size of the equipment to shield the antenna from weather) protrudes horizontally from the edge of the tower or structure by more than 20 feet or more than the width of the tower or mount at the level of that added portion of the proposal;
— Increases the permitted square footage of the existing equipment compound by more than 2,500 square feet; or
— Adds to or modifies a camouflaged PWSF in a way that would defeat the effect of the camouflage.
Rye police Chief Kevin Walsh said his department and others would have “no way” of getting services to an individual in those areas if reception issues prevented calls from going out. Walsh said cell phones are the “first thing” people reach for when they need emergency services and more needs to be done to prevent the devices from being rendered useless.
“We haven’t matched (wireless network) technology with the level of services available,” Walsh said. “If they can’t call us, how would we know they need assistance?”
A new law, RSA 12-K, seeks to overcome this issue by no longer requiring individuals to obtain variances from municipal land-use boards or to appear at a public hearing before they add new antenna arrays to existing structures or enhance existing cell towers.
Over the years, a number of municipal, business and public safety officials throughout the Seacoast have used terms like “spotty” and “terrible” to describe the reliability of systems along the coast.
While they recognize RSA 12-K as a way to change that, many of those same individuals have reservations about the fact that the efforts will come at the expense of local towns’ oversight.
“It’s a significant issue,” said Rye Selectman Craig Musselman, who is also president and founder of CMA Engineers of Portsmouth. “This certainly would change things significantly.”
RSA 12-K, introduced as Senate Bill 101 last year and signed into law in September, is designed to enhance the state’s wireless communications by reducing the time and steps required to receive approval for attaching new equipment to existing towers, mounts, electrical transmission towers, water towers and buildings.
“It was meant to expedite the process of using existing towers to try to minimize the impact of new towers,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, the bill’s prime sponsor. “By (building onto existing structures), you would need fewer overall towers … (to help) areas of the state that were underserved.”
The law ties in with the goals of the National Broadband Plan. Any applicant seeking to add onto these structures and buildings now no longer needs variances as long as they have permission from the owner of the property and don’t exceed the law’s “substantial modification” clauses, which dictate limits to changes in height, configuration and construction.
Hampton and its Zoning Board of Adjustment found this out recently after receiving an application that sought to add 12 multi-band panel antennas to the top of a newly constructed condominium building in the heart of Hampton Beach. The board was set to make a decision on the proposal last month, though members granted the applicant permission to withdraw the application because Hampton discovered it no longer had jurisdiction over the matter. This didn’t sit well with board members.
“To me, we should have at least some kind of overview,” said Ed St. Pierre, the ZBA’s clerk. “I have a problem with the fact that they’re taking the local control away from this board. I felt we had a right to review this.”
Stratham Town Planner Lincoln Daley said the law doesn’t give all cell tower proposals “carte blanche” approval, though. Towns and cities still have the ability to make sure the erection of new towers and replacement towers comply with local ordinances, as well as solicit input from the public on such matters. A cell tower currently before the town of Stratham falls under this category, as it seeks to completely replace an existing freestanding monopole, Daley said.
Paul Sanderson, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said the modified rules will “surely” lead to issues for municipalities as they learn the ins and outs of the new law, particularly because he said the law stipulates projects “must be approved without local land-use board review” even if they “appear to violate conditions” imposed when the affected tower or mount was first reviewed.
“It is possible that existing applications will have to be changed, time frames for review will change, existing fee structures will have to be changed, and land-use board members will have to be trained about why they will no longer be involved in the review of these matters,” Sanderson said.
Another issue could stem from the fact that while applicants do have to seek a building permit for the work, the application is automatically deemed approved if the receiving municipality doesn’t issue a decision within 45 days.
Daley described this as a new “shot clock” to speed up applications, while Hampton Building Inspector Kevin Schultz said he believes it essentially means applicants “just keep going” as long as they comply with the new law’s restrictions.
“They don’t need me,” Schultz said.
Sanderson said the law also raises a number of other questions. He said there are no provisions that allow for an extension for the building permit deadline if a municipality’s building inspector needs to seek input from outside experts about whether the new equipment could affect the structural integrity of the existing structure or its electrical system.
Some municipalities seek building permit reviews from the state fire marshal’s office because they haven’t adopted their own permit enforcement process, and Sanderson said there is no deadline extension provision in RSA 12-K for this type of review.
Wireless communications applicants also used to be able to seek an appeal through the town’s appeals process, though the new law states this type of review is only available at the superior court level. Sanderson said the new law doesn’t state how many days a “person aggrieved” by a local-level decision — whether an applicant or anyone else with what he described as a “legally protected interest in the decision” — would have to take action in superior court, though.
“There are practical difficulties, which will arise under this scheme, and there are no clear answers as yet to guide resolution of these issues,” he said.
Daley described the law as an “interesting change.” Because it hasn’t yet affected his town, which has seen strong public opposition during hearings on the majority of its cell tower proposals, he said it’s “unclear” whether it would truly benefit local governments to allow certain applicants to skip the site plan approval process.
“It’s a dramatically different scenario than what we’re used to as a town,” Daley said.