City regulates aesthetics of 5G while officials say hands are tied on health concerns

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Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish with fresh snow on Big Mountain.

Whitefish is implementing regulations around small 5G cell wireless facilities that could end up being installed primarily in the public right-of-way.

While some might prefer that 5G be banned entirely, city officials note that the only rules they can place on such cell installations are aesthetic requirements.

A handful of folks voiced concerns to City Council last week about potential serious health impacts from 5G technology.

Lauren Walker called exposure to 5G a serious health concern.

“We need to completely step up and fight these with everything we have,” she said. “We won’t have tourism here, we will have sickness. The community doesn’t know the impacts this will have beyond ugly light posts.”

Teri Balaska said limits on technology access is one reason residents live here and visitors choose to visit.

“Tourism is a mainstay of our community and part of that is the beauty of our area,” she said. “We can be a recreation haven and still be a place where you can feel rejuvenated.”

Councilor Ryan Hennan urged those with concerns to contact Montana’s representatives in Congress.

“If you’re frustrated like a lot of people are contact Sen. [Jon] Tester or Sen. [Steve] Daines or Rep. [Greg] Gianforte,” he said. “There’s not a lot we can do about this.”

Some have said that 5G cell service could expose people to much more radio frequency because sites are located closer together. 5G allows more data to be sent at higher speeds, but requires more wireless facilities because the waves don’t travel very well through objects such as buildings.

However, the cell industry, says exposure is similar to what results from Bluetooth devices, and the radio waves have no health impacts.

City Council did pass aesthetic regulations and set a permit fee for small cell facilities.

“We know we’re not solving your biggest concern, which is health concerns,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said. “We are barred from doing that. But we’re protecting the city the best way we can.”

A controversial Federal Communications Commission rule adopted last fall allows for the installation of 5G wireless or “small wireless facilities” that include an antenna with wires running to a backpack-sized box. They are often located on utility poles or on the side of a building spaced at close intervals.

City Attorney Angela Jacobs said the city is not welcoming 5G cell facilities into the city, but rather attempting to regulate them the only way allowed under the FCC rule that is “geared toward speeding up the deployment of small wireless facilities.”

“We are attempting to regulate 5G with the tools we have left,” Jacobs said. “Small cellular facilities are coming, we just don’t know when. I don’t know if Whitefish will get hit as hard as bigger cities, but we want to be proactive.”

Jacobs notes that while many have health concerns regarding the operation of the 5G facilities, local governments can’t regulate small-cell facilities based on environmental concerns as long as they comply with FCC rules for radio-wave radiation exposure.

5G or fifth generation is the next wireless technology by wireless carriers. The small wireless facilities are typically installed in high-demand areas and have a range of service measured in hundreds of feet rather than traditional large cell towers that cover miles.

Jacobs brought the issue before City Council earlier this spring, noting that the city has already received phone calls inquiring about its regulations for 5G.

She said the city has little recourse in the matter except to implement aesthetic requirements for the equipment, and to implement fees related to its installation.

Under the regulations approved by City Council, the city says it prefers installation in industrial and commercial areas over installation in residential locations.

It also seeks for facilities to be installed on existing streetlights or replacement streetlights to “enhance concealment opportunities.” Design standards also establish aesthetic requirements including overall height limitations, camouflaging and concealment, equipment volume and landscaping.

City regulations also set up a small cell permit that is required for any small wireless facility proposed in the public right-of-way or on private property. Those applying for a permit must give notice to adjacent property owners.

The application fee for collocation of up to five small wireless facilities on an existing structure is $500 and the fee for collocation of each facility beyond the five is $100. The application fee for a new or replacement structure to support a small wireless facility is $1,000. The annual fee for attachment of each facility to city infrastructure is $270.

Jacobs said the FCC rule only allows the city to collect reasonable fees.

“These fees are not going to be enough to reimburse the city for our costs,” Jacobs said. “But once we’ve processed some we will track our time and then set the fees to match the cost.”

The rule also creates a fairly short time period for cities to process 5G applications — 60 days for collocation on pre-existing structures and 90 days for new construction. If the deadline, which begins as soon as an application is submitted and not when it’s deemed complete, is missed, the request is immediately approved.

Dozens of cities and counties have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the FCC rule. The suit is currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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