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Small cell tower installation in downtown Baton Rouge dials up controversy and ‘chaos’

It’s been more than a year since the Metro Council approved an ordinance establishing rules for how and where telecommunications companies can place the small cell towers that will bring high-speed, 5G wireless technology to Baton Rouge.

And it’s been four months since the council amended that ordinance, closing loopholes and addressing numerous problems in the first, quickly passed piece of legislation.

Yet it wasn’t until subcontractors for AT&T began boring holes in downtown sidewalks for the first 25 of what eventually will be 80 small cell towers around the city that property owners and residents sat up and took notice. And what they’re noticing isn’t making them happy.

Multiple property owners have contacted the Downtown Development District, executive director Davis Rhorer confirms, with concerns about the location and placement of the 29-foot black, metal towers that by local law can be placed in the middle of the public right of way.

City-parish Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel admits the situation “has created a lot of chaos downtown”—most notably the downtown power outage in mid-October caused by an AT&T subcontractor striking an underground power line while digging to install a small cell tower.

Gissel, Rhorer and other city-parish officials met Friday with officials from AT&T to try to get a better handle on where the towers will be placed, and how that will affect the surrounding area and other fixtures, signage and buildings on the street.

“It’s important for me to know where these towers are going to be located because of future development downtown,” Rhorer says. “We have bike share stations going up and the city is investing in new smart parking meters so it’s important that we coordinate where all this stuff is going.”

Why there wasn’t more coordination before AT&T started working on the towers has to do primarily with the local ordinance as well as new federal laws, according to Gissel, who says the city-parish has little say so over where the towers can go.

The city-parish Division of Traffic Engineering reviewed the proposed locations for the towers months ago but only from a safety perspective. Legally, the city-parish cannot veto sites for aesthetic reasons, Gissel says.

“We cannot say, ‘You can’t put a tower there because we don’t like it or a property owner doesn’t like it,’” he says. “There has to be a compelling reason like a safety hazard or a historical building.”

That said, Gissel says AT&T is trying to work with the city and be sensitive about where it is putting its towers. Last week, amidst an outcry from several residents, the company agreed to relocate the site of a tower that would have been directly in front of the entrance of a high-end apartment building to a nearby site in front of a parking garage, where it will be less visually obtrusive.

The concern over the small cell towers downtown is mirrored in communities across the country, as telecommunications companies and infrastructure providers begin developing the networks that will usher in the next generation—or fifth generation—of wireless communication.

And it’s likely to be played out in other Baton Rouge neighborhoods soon, as AT&T, Verizon and other companies begin installing small cell towers in residential neighborhoods.

“This is something people are going to have to deal with and neighborhoods are going to have to start grappling with,” Gissel says. “This technology is coming.”

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