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Western Pa. municipalities' rules for cell towers in flux

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Bethel Park is among more than a dozen Pittsburgh-area municipalities looking to establish rules for smaller cellular antennas within their communities, having watched such “distributed antenna systems” cause angst on the other side of the state.

Standing shorter and carrying less broadcasting power and reach than a typical high-powered cell tower, the DAS networks attach antennas to several poles 25 to 45 feet high. The poles connect to a central hub by buried fiber-optic cables to provide additional coverage and capacity for various providers' cellular networks.

Smaller-scale indoor DAS networks are used to improve reception and capacity in corporate headquarters or sports venues such as Heinz Field and Consol Energy Center.

“A lot of municipalities haven't updated their old cell tower ordinances since the 1990s,” said attorney Daniel S. Cohen. “There have been dramatic changes in technology and the law in that time, all because of our smartphones, tablets and demand for bandwidth.”

Cohen, of O'Hara-based Cohen Law Group, spoke to Bethel Park Council at their invitation on Monday about updating the municipality's zoning code to cover such devices. Most municipalities' codes only cover large cell towers that typically are set back from the road on property owned or leased by companies building the towers.

Cohen is working with about 12 of the 19 member communities in the North Hills Council of Governments to evaluate their zoning codes and recommend updates to the regulations for the newer cell towers.

“One thing different communities have been looking at is making their current ordinances match up with the current technologies,” said Bethel Park municipal planner Jerry Duke. So far, no one has proposed distributed antenna networks for Bethel Park, Duke said, but the community wants to have a say when and if they do.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission certifies some communications tower-building companies as public utility providers, which allows them to build in public rights-of-way, said PUC spokeswoman Denise McCracken.

Cohen said he will work with Bethel Park to establish legislation updating the zoning code, which he has done for about a dozen other communities in the Pittsburgh region in the last few months.

Wayne Roller, executive director of the North Hills Council of Governments, said member communities contracted with Cohen at a group rate to update their codes to include regulations for smaller cell towers and networks.

In Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia, Cohen represented Northampton Township when it went to court in 2012 over the placement of mini-cell towers along roadsides in residential neighborhoods where every other utility was buried underground.

The township eventually reached a settlement with the tower company to relocate the new mini-towers to areas that already had above-ground utility poles, said Mike Solomon, Northampton's planning and zoning director.

Two months ago, Cranberry passed a rough version of its regulations for distributed antenna systems in the Butler County community in response to a proposal from Houston-based Crown Castle Communications for such a network, said Community Development Director Ron Henshaw. Crown Castle representatives did not return requests for comment.

Cranberry requires that the cell towers and equipment be located along main roads – not within residential developments – and if they are near houses, they must be aligned with the spaces between homes, not directly in front of them, Henshaw said. If possible, the towers must blend with existing utility poles, he said.

“It's new to us, the theory of putting these ‘nodes' or whatever” in rights-of way, Henshaw said. Cranberry supervisors may vote on final code revisions on Oct. 2.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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