Ott’s cell tower plan clears Assembly
Bill introduced after Mequon controversy

By Gary Achterberg - News Graphic Staff

July 20, 2017

MEQUON — The ideas in a bill state Rep. Jim Ott introduced this winter in response to a company’s plan to build a 195-foot-tall cell phone tower in a Mequon back yard are a step closer to becoming law.

Ott proposed allowing municipalities to adopt rules with a setback requirement for cell phone towers on residential lots or areas zoned residential. For instance, that 195-foot tower would have to be built at least that far from a property line.

Ott’s plan later got rolled into a wider-ranging bill related to wireless facilities. That bill was approved by the Assembly last month. The Mequon Republican said he hopes it advances through the Senate and on to Gov. Scott Walker after lawmakers return from a summer recess.

“I got everything I wanted in the bill – plus a little bit more,” Ott said in an interview. “I think this pretty much solves the problem. It certainly would solve the problem we had here in Mequon.”

The kerfuffle started when Indiana-based Cellusite announced plans to build the cell tower for T-Mobile on a lot at 6131 W. Chapel Hill Road, which is just northwest of Green Bay and Highland roads. The city had few teeth to stop the tower, despite the objections of neighbors. A provision in the 2013 state budget takes most power away from municipalities to regulate the location of cell towers.

Ott got involved, spoke with T-Mobile representatives and ultimately drafted his bill. Most of his ideas were incorporated into the bill that the Assembly passed on a voice vote June 21 that was introduced by state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, who is chairman of the Assembly’s Energy and Utilities Committee.

Ott said his proposal was enhanced because language in the Kuglitsch bill includes lots that are adjacent to residential lots. For instance, it would apply to a commercial property adjacent to one zoned residential.

The bill does not automatically impose the setback rules; it permits cities, towns and villages to adopt rules that do that.

“Hopefully all of the municipalities take advantage of this opportunity to pass a local ordinance,” Ott said.

The Kuglitsch bill, which lists state Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, as one of its cosponsors, does not have an identical bill already introduced in the Senate. However, state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, signed onto the Assembly version.

While lawmakers will convene to pass the state budget, the Legislature is not expected to return for a regular session until Sept. 10. Ott said the Senate either could simply take up the bill passed in the Assembly or consider a similar bill on its own. He’s optimistic the bill will continue moving toward the governor’s desk.

In addition to incorporating Ott’s plan, the Kuglitsch bill streamlines and standardizes rules that will accelerate the deployment of small-cell technology in Wisconsin.

“Small-cell technology is the next generation of infrastructure and, when deployed, will enable 5G network speeds and meet the ever-rising consumer demand for data,” according to a summary of the bill provided by Kuglitsch’s office. “When compared to traditional macro towers, small cells are typically added to utility poles, traffic signals, street lights and buildings that already exist in most urban areas.”

The bill adopts “fair and consistent rules that simplify the process and allow companies to more quickly deploy small-cell technology,” the analysis added. Nine states – Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota and Florida – have enacted similar small-cell legislation.

The plans to build the cell tower on Chapel Hill Road have received little attention lately, but still active. After the tower was proposed, Mequon’s Planning Commission met less than three minutes and unanimously approved rules that imposed a setback requirement – similar to what Ott proposed in his bill. The Common Council adopted those rules without discussion. In mid-January, the Planning Commission voted to deny the request for the cell tower based on the new rule.

Cellusite appealed to the city’s Board of Appeals. It later asked for a delay in that meeting. While there has been no activity for months, Mequon City Attorney Brian Sajdak said recently that the issue will be taken up by the Board of Appeals in late August.

Ott said the rules he proposed are a necessary fix to state law.

“You just can’t have situations like we had here in Mequon where somebody wakes up one morning and 25 feet from their lot line, there’s a cell tower,” he said.