FOX 11 Investigates: Lawmakers consider changes to cell phone tower law
(WLUK) -- Some state lawmakers are hoping to undo a recent change in state law which made it easier for companies to build cell phone towers.
The move comes after several high-profile cases where residents were unhappy about cell towers being planned near neighborhoods.
Last year, despite vocal opposition from residents, a tower was built on Green Bay's east-side
City leaders tried to stop it but said their hands were tied.
"We don't have a say," city council president Tom DeWane told FOX 11 in 2016.
That's because since 2013, the construction of cell phone towers is no longer controlled by local governments.
"The Legislature comes along and it takes all their power away. That's not right," said State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez).
FOX 11 Investigates first highlighted the issue in 2014.
We explained how then-State Rep. John Klenke (R-Green Bay) introduced the idea that was added to the state budget which drastically changed the way cell phone towers were handled.
It basically took away most of a local government's authority to control the placement of cell phone towers, all in the name of improving cell service.
"If you want the coverage and you want to hold the telephone companies responsible for providing it, you can't hold them hostage and not let them put the cell towers in the places they need," Klenke told FOX 11 in 2014.
Since it was added to the budget, the proposal had no public hearing, no separate vote and became law after the budget was passed and signed.
Cowles voted for the budget that year but he says he did not support the cell phone tower provision.
"Probably would have never passed if it had gone through a normal committee process," Cowles said.
Now, just four years later, Cowles wants to undo the changes.
"How do you explain stuff that is not fair? It was the wrong thing to do and I certainly hope we can give most of the authority or all of the authority back to local governments," Cowles said.
Cowles is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow communities to put restrictions on how close a tower can be to a residential area.
State Rep. David Steffen (R-Ashwaubenon), who was not in Madison when the law was changed, is also backing the bill.
"What this bill essentially will do is restore control where it belongs when it comes to cell tower placement," Steffen said.
Steffen says he understands that companies need to build towers but he says the legislature went too far with the changes.
"What we need to do is kind of find middle ground, allow the pendulum to settle where it belongs somewhere in the middle," Steffen said.
While the bill Steffen and Cowles are backing deals with towers near residential properties, another bill would address towers on residential properties.
State Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) has proposed a bill that would allow local communities to impose a setback requirement for towers being built on residential properties. That would mean any tower built would have to be a certain distance away from any houses.
One industry group says it's open to examining the issue again, but wants to make sure cell service remains strong and reliable across the state.
"We want to place infrastructure where people are going to use the service," said Jeff Roznowski from the Wisconsin Wireless Association, a group that represents the cell phone tower industry.
"We think the law has worked for three and a half years," Roznowski said.
But Roznowksi does recognize that some communities have issues with the changes.
Take Appleton, for example. Despite the state law, Appleton's city council voted to deny a tower that would be built right next to a home. The city is now facing a lawsuit.
"I think any kind of a dial back that kind of puts us back in the game is a good thing," said Appleton mayor Tim Hanna.
Roznowski says that the law could be tweaked.
"The advice we give to our members is to use this law as a backstop rather than a hammer," Roznowksi said. "Now, as you have a lot of different companies and individuals involved, some do that better than other. And if there are some not compromising as well, that perhaps provides the message that we need to work closer with communities and perhaps have some changes to that law."
While Cowles says he's hopeful for change, he says it's not a done deal just yet.
"Stay tuned. I don't think it will be a necessarily easy bill to pass," Cowles said.