FOX 11 Investigates: Recent change in cellphone tower law

A relatively new state law may improve your cellphone reception but it’s making some residents angry.

This spring, St. Joseph parish in Green Bay announced plans by AT&T to build a cellphone tower inside a steeple. That’s when Kay Gallagher sprang into action.

“Everybody feels helpless,” she told FOX 11 Investigates.

Gallagher has lived in the west-side neighborhood near the church for 18 years. She’s concerned a cellphone tower could lower property values. She contacted her alderman, Guy Zima.

“There are a lot of people that don’t like the idea of a cell tower in the middle of a neighborhood,” Zima said.

Zima had dealt with similar issues in the past. But this time, he was in for a surprise.

“The final say-so always came with the city council and the city of Green Bay,” he said.

When asked who has the final say now, he replied, “The final say is with whoever applies for the permit. Basically, the things they have to meet in the city are just very nominal.”

That’s because under a state law passed last year, cities like Green Bay don’t have the authority they used to.

“It took all local control away. 100 percent,” Zima said.

“It really kind of preempts our authority,” said Paul Neumeyer, the zoning administrator in Green Bay.

“I think our powers have been reduced significantly,” Neumeyer said.

A Green Bay city ordinance had 14 separate requirements for towers. But now, Neumeyer says the city’s hands are tied. Local governments can no longer deny towers because of how they look, how tall they are or even where they’re located.

“There’s no height restriction. There’s no setback requirement at this point or placement or zoning district. They can really be placed anywhere,” Neumeyer said.

But cellphone companies say the changes are good not just for cellphone companies but also for their customers.

“We’ve improved service significantly as a result of this whole process,” said Jim Lienau from Cellcom. He says his company has plans for four new towers in the Green Bay area since the new law took effect. In the past, different communities handled cellphone towers differently. Now, the process is the same everywhere. That makes it easier for companies to build towers.

“We’re not trying to cause problems with municipalities or cause problems with the residents. We’re really trying to improve service,” Lienau said.

But city leaders remain frustrated with the new law.

“The people have no say so,” Zima said.

So how did this happen? In May of last year, a proposal to change the cellphone tower law was added to the state budget. It got little attention. In fact, there were no public hearings on it. And when the budget was passed, it became law.

State Rep. John Klenke, R-Green Bay, introduced the measure in Madison. He says it’s not a local issue but a state issue.

“You don’t do yourself any good by building infrastructure in one county because Internet needs to be ubiquitous. It needs to be everywhere,” Klenke said. “You can’t have a patchwork quilt. It would be no different than if you had a highway that would begin in Brown County but would end in Kewaunee.”

Klenke says the measure was put into the budget because it was the fastest way to get it done. Plus, he didn’t hear much opposition to it. Now, he knows there are some people who don’t like the law.

When asked what he says to critics of the law, Klenke replied, “There’s always a balance between local control and state or even federal intervention.”

“I know that some of the critics weren’t happy but if you want the coverage and you want to hold the telephone companies responsible for providing it you can’t then hold them hostage and not let them put the cell towers in the places they need,” Klenke said.

“I look at it as a windfall to consumers and businesses,” said Jeff Roznowski, president of the Wisconsin Wireless Association.

He insists that local governments still have the ability to regulate towers by requiring companies to try to put their equipment on existing structures. He admits the law does put limits on what municipalities can and cannot regulate.

“There are less things they can deny a tower on. There’s no argument about that,” Roznowski said. “But they but they still provide the ultimate control over approving or disapproving a tower.”

The view is much different from Gallagher’s perspective.

“Nobody has any say anymore,” she said.

Gallagher is not happy with the law or the way it was changed with little to no debate.

“When it’s going to stop?” she asked. “How many laws are slid under the table there and the average citizen doesn’t even know about it?”

FOX 11 Investigates tried to speak with a representative from AT&T for this story but a spokesperson said no one would be available for an on-camera interview.

In an email, the company says the site at St. Joseph’s church “…will help AT&T bring customers in the area the best possible wireless experience.”

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