Renton moves forward with updating small cell ordinance

Service providers were not happy with the plan council members voted on.

Renton City Council voted to update regulations for small cell facilities, however not everyone was happy with the plan they chose to move forward with.

The vote was necessary to bring the city up to code and into the 21st century, according to city officials, as pre-existing codes did not anticipate or address the changing technology and telecommunication services.

The vote allowed regulations for small cell facilities, microcells, and distributed antenna systems, as well as established standards for permitting, location, aesthetics and compatibility with existing communication structures and facilities. The ordinance also established a fee schedule for small cell permits.

With the new ordinance in place, small cells, microcells and distributed antenna systems can be placed on existing buildings and structures on poles. This minimizes visual clutter and addresses impacts on public safety and the natural environment, according to an ordinance draft.

The last major technological regulation was written in 1998, and was amended in 2002 and 2005. However, those regulations were for macrocell poles, cellular towers and lattice towers, and did not address the small cell facilities needed for 4G and 5G wireless network services, said Planning Director Jennifer Henning at the Jan. 22 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The need is obvious, Henning said, especially in high density areas within the city like The Landing.

“There is quite a bit of interest in deploying within Renton by the small cell providers,” she wrote in an email. “Certain areas of the city will be prioritized by the companies, depending on where they perceive that capacity is an issue. Over time, we understand that up to several hundred small cell sites could be deployed in Renton.”

Unlike macro cell poles and cellular towers, small cell facilities “will cover a small area, maybe 500 to 1,000 linear feet on the ground… and they’ll be 18 to 30 feet off the ground,” she said at the meeting.

City officials have been working with wireless providers over a year to recommend to the council code revision that provides direction on facilitating the deployment of small cell wireless and updates the zoning use table to specify where the small cell facilities can be located.

In the revisions, small cell facilities are allowed in all zones subjected to a conditional use permit. The only exception would be if the facilities comply with city-specified concealment techniques, in which case only a small cell permit would be required.

The concealment techniques include attaching the facilities to buildings, incorporating them into marquee signs, attaching them to (or replacing) parking lot lighting, replacing utility poles or street lights and allowing for the use of existing utility poles in designated areas (any area that’s not a design district).

A single small cell permit would apply for up to five facilities spaced within one general area to provide coverage.

If the code proves to be efficient, Henning said the city could revisit this in the future and expand the number of facilities that could be batched under one small cell permit.

“The technology has been evolving, and cities all over the state and country are trying to ensure that we local controls,” she wrote in an email. “However, we understand that this is new, and may require tweaks or changes. There is no set schedule for review. We anticipate that we will be returning to the council before the end of 2018 with observations and recommendations.”

If a provider did not want to comply with the concealment techniques, they would be required to submit a concealment element plan, which would detail the individualized concealment approaches.

“There may be ways of hiding this we haven’t thought about. If we evaluate that through this conditional use permit and found it to meet our criteria, we would then approve it. It’s a matter of giving more citizen involvement, more public notification,” Henning said.

City officials drafted two versions of the ordinance, one plan that allows standoff brackets — which allows for small cells to be offset about 12 inches from a pole — and the other without standoff brackets (unless through a conditional use permit). Staff recommended the council vote on the option that would only allow for standoff brackets with a conditional use permit.

“If this was to occur in residential areas, if you were to have standoff brackets, because they’re not flush mounted, it could impact on the people looking out of their window and having a pole in front of their home,” Henning said. “There should be the ability to go through a conditional use permit, have it evaluated in that way, have people have notification. We’re suggesting that standoff brackets be allowed outright and that they require the use of conditional use permits.”

The staff-recommended option also allows for public notification, Henning added.

“The primary way in which the administrative conditional use permit process benefits the city is that there will be public notification, that is, written notice will be mailed to all property owners within 300 feet of the site,” she said. “The opportunity for public participation and meaningful comments to be considered as part of the process, will allow for modification of the facility or location to create the least amount of impact to the potentially affected properties and residents.”

However service providers hoped the council would consider the alternative option.

In a letter addressed to the mayor and council members, AT&T asked the council to allow for the stand off brackets as the preferred concealment, as it “allows placement of AT&T’s antennas at locations other than of the pole, when a pole-top placement would not be feasible due to the height limitations or design requirements.”

The letter also urged the city to change the required height for small cells, change the required diameter of the permit pole top antenna canisters, allow small cell installations on wooden utility poles in design districts, increase the amount of facilities that would be allowed in one single cell permit, require the applicant obtain right-of-way use permit prior to applying for zoning review.

Other wireless providers also expressed their concerns at the Jan. 22 City Council meeting.

A Wireless Policy Group member representing Verizon said there were three provisions that might put the city in a competitive disadvantageous position, including the restrictions in design or undergrounding districts, the mounting requirements if standoff brackets weren’t an option and the amount of facilities allowed in a small cell permit.

The representative asked the council to delay the second reading of the ordinance — which was scheduled on the same day — to examine the options one more time. She said the public received the two drafted ordinances a week prior and urged the council to “take the time to get this right.”

A representative for T-Mobile echoed previous concerns, including the amount of facilities allowed in a small cell permit.

“The administrative burden is going to be less than staff fears and it might make sense for the city of Renton to follow the jurisdictions in the area that are adopting 15 or 20 sites per batch,” she said.

The representative also said said she was worried about fee schedule, which was about $500 per site plus costs of processing the permit if it exceeds $500. Cost of the administrative conditional use permit is $1,500.

Despite the concerns the council voted 6-0 (council member Randy Corman was absent) to go forward with the city staff recommended option. The first and final reading took place on Jan. 22.