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Ohio Cities Sue State Over New Wireless Equipment Law

Senate Bill 331, signed by Gov. John Kasich last year, allows wireless service providers to attach "micro-wireless" equipment without consent or regulation from local governments.

(TNS) — A hearing will be held March 30 in Summit County Common Pleas Court on a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction sought by 20 northeast Ohio cities and villages who want to stop a new state wireless equipment law that went into effect March 20.

A similar lawsuit against the new law was filed Monday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by 50 more cities and villages from around the state, including 14 in central Ohio.

Senate Bill 331, approved by the Ohio General Assembly and signed by Gov. John Kasich last year, allows wireless service providers to attach "micro-wireless" equipment — such as antennas and boxes — to traffic lights, utility poles, street signs and other structures in public right-of-ways without consent or regulation from local governments. Antennas must measure less than six cubic feet and boxes less than 28 cubic feet, or about the size of a refrigerator, according to the new state law.

The law also allows cellphone providers to build new signal towers up to 50 feet high in the public right-of-way.

No action is imminent on the Franklin County case as officials wait to see what happens in Summit County court. At a hearing Monday in Akron, Magistrate Kandi S. O'Connor ordered the state to submit a written brief in response to that lawsuit by Friday. The plaintiffs will then have until March 28 to file their written response before verbal arguments will be heard at 9 a.m. March 30.

The two lawsuits contend that the unilateral rights granted wireless providers under the state's law are unconstitutional violations of home-rule authority under the Ohio Constitution. In addition to aesthetic concerns of unregulated placement of such equipment, city and village officials say they're worried the lack of regulation could cause safety problems if equipment isn't installed properly.

"Senate Bill 331 effectively prohibits cities from regulating the placement of wireless facilities in our communities," said Bexley Mayor Ben Kessler, chair of the Central Ohio Mayors and Managers Association, which spearheaded the legal action in Franklin County court. The law, he said, gives utilities "the kind of rights no utility has ever had or should ever get."

The state law only impacts city and villages. It doesn't apply to counties or townships, which the lawsuits contend also violate the Ohio Constitution's uniformity clause.

In addition to those concerns, the lawsuits allege Senate Bill 331 violates the state Constitution's single-subject rule, which says "no bill shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Peterson (R-Sabina), was introduced in May 2016 as a law intended to override local ordinances that restricted how pet stores can acquire dogs they sell. It was often called the "Petland bill" because the national pet store chain pushed for its passage after Grove City and Toledo passed restrictive local laws.

But by the time Kasich signed Senate Bill 331 into law last December, it included several late amendments covering a hodgepodge of topics, such as bestiality, cockfighting and minimum wage.

The controversial "micro wireless facilities" amendment was added during the Senate's lame-duck session, held after the next General Assembly had already been elected. There were no public hearings on the wireless matter, which city and village officials criticized for a lack of transparency.

AT&T lobbied for the wireless provider provisions in Ohio, but other providers, such as Sprint and Verizon, have campaigned for similar rules in other states.

The equipment described in the bill, also called "small-cell" technology, is critical for wireless providers to maintain speedy cellphone coverage in densely populated areas and successfully rolling out next-generation 5G coverage, Verizon spokesman Paul Vasington said.

"They're already deployed in many cities around the country and generally you don't notice them, because they're unobtrusive and fit in with existing infrastructure," Vasington said.

Small-cell technology helps meet demands for 4G service without requiring additional macrocell or large cellphone towers, which typically measure about 150 feet, he said. Existing laws in most Ohio cities only address those larger towers.

An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 small cells will be deployed nationwide by 2018 to improve service and as many as 800,000 by 2026, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Vasington and AT&T spokeswoman Nicole Walker declined comment on Monday's lawsuit.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office, which represents the General Assembly and the governor in the matter, provided a written statement in response to the legal actions:

"We understand that portions of a bill passed by the Ohio General Assembly have been challenged in several courts. We are reviewing the pleadings and will respond accordingly."

City officials emphasized they're not against bringing new technology into their municipalities. Many cities listed as plaintiffs in the suit already have small-cell equipment installed safely and responsibly within their boundaries, officials said.

But as it's written, Senate Bill 331 doesn't allow for compromise or oversight, creating a "wild west" scenario, New Albany City Manager Joe Stefanov said.

For example, nothing in the law prevents providers from constructing 50-foot cellphone towers in the area between streets and sidewalks in residential areas.

"We want to maintain a balance between making the technology available and protecting the aesthetic qualities that take a lot of time, effort and money to create within our communities," Stefanov said.

The 14 central Ohio cities listed as participants in the Franklin County lawsuit are: Bexley, Columbus, Dublin, Delaware, Gahanna, Grandview Heights, Grove City, Hilliard, Lancaster, New Albany, Upper Arlington, Westerville, Whitehall and Worthington.

It's expected more lawsuits on the subject will be filed statewide, said Greg Dunn, an attorney with Ice Miller LLP, a Columbus law firm representing central Ohio cities in the lawsuit. Former Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman is a partner and member of Ice Miller's Public Affairs and Government Law, Internet of Things Group, and serves as the law firm's director of business and government strategies.

In 1997, the cities of Dublin and Upper Arlington sued the state on a similar issue involving public utilities, home rule and the Ohio Constitution’s single-subject rule and were successful.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.