Infrastructure that would bring some of the fastest mobile internet speeds to Highlands Ranch has many community members concerned over potential health risks, neighborhood eyesores and diminished home values.
“I moved to Highlands Ranch because I liked nature, I liked being away from Denver, the big city,” resident Terri Polakowski said. “If 5G moves in, I will probably leave.”
Zayo Group — a Boulder-based company that provides communications infrastructure services — is working with Sprint to install 550 small cell sites across the Front Range to prepare for the next generation of mobile networks, dubbed 5G. Sprint and other providers say the newest network delivers speeds at 100 times faster than what is available today.
In November, Zayo brought before the Highlands Ranch Community Association Development Review Committee an application proposing 30 small cell sites across Highlands Ranch. The proposal called for 24-foot-tall and up to 36-inch-wide green poles along sidewalks in residential areas.
The committee — which is solely a referral entity and doesn't have authority to set guidelines — cited issues with the appearance and location, as well as outrage among residents over potential health hazards of the sites' high radio frequency energy.
According to Douglas County officials, Zayo's application is on hold.
In an email statement to Colorado Community Media, Shannon Paulk, director of corporate communications at Zayo, said: "We’re sensitive to both community needs and the need for reliable, high-speed mobile service. Our goal is to listen to the concerns of the community and attempt to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome."
Last September, Zayo submitted to Douglas County its first pre-submittal site improvement plan for small cell sites along public streets in Highlands Ranch, according to county documents. It submitted more than a dozen more over the following four months.
Zayo will go through the county's site-improvement plan process as long as the county's protocols are not pre-empted by state or federal law or regulation, according to county officials. In that process, comments from referral agencies — such as the HRCA Development Review Committee — are to be reviewed by the applicant and a county planner.
Zayo's next step would be to submit a formal application to Douglas County Planning and Engineering services. Zayo did not provide a timeline for the project.
"We continue to work closely with Douglas County on the permitting process," Paulk said in an email correspondence. "As this process is ongoing, we don't have specifics to share at this point."
At a March 6 HRCA Development Review Committee meeting, dozens of community members voiced opposition to Zayo's proposal. Committee members said they would forward the comments to the county for review.
“We just want more time before this experiment has to happen,” resident Amber Shaible said. Her son has an autoimmune disorder that is heightened by electromagnetic exposure, she said.
Regulations are in place at the federal level intended to protect people from electromagnetic fields.
The Federal Communications Commission last updated its guidelines on human exposure to radiofrequency from cell towers and cell sites in 1996. The FCC says its guidelines are in line with those established by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, a nonprofit corporation chartered by Congress that studies radiation and best practices in the public interest, according to its website.
Many cell sites already exist in Highlands Ranch. Owned by wireless providers like Verizon, they are disguised as light poles and placed along major thoroughfares, including Quebec Street and Highlands Ranch Parkway.
Some residents feel like that is enough.
“My question is,” Damir Stupar asked about 5G, “ why do we need it?”
County's hands are tied
Local government has little control over telecommunications infrastructure because of state and federal regulations.
“Potentially, they may not be able to deny it,” Dawn Johnson, senior assistant county attorney, said of Douglas County Planning and Engineer services. “It depends on what access the provider needs, what ability the provider has to serve the area and update the network, and the extent to which the provider can and is willing to work with the governing authority.”
Passed in 2017, Colorado House Bill 17-1193 limits local municipalities' authority by permitting small cell facilities in all zoning districts and allowing small cell sites to be placed on existing infrastructure owned by a utility company or local government in public right-of-way. That includes light poles, traffic signals and utility poles on public streets and sidewalks.
In September 2018, the FCC released an order further limiting the authority of local entities and expediting the permit process.
Under the order, local government has control over few things, including the aesthetics, so long as requests don't prohibit services.
Ken Fellman, a Denver-based attorney who specializes in telecommunications and local government law, said the new standard is more lenient, creating a “gray area” between local government and the wireless industry.
The FCC's order is being challenged in court but an outcome could take months, according to Fellman.
He encourages concerned constituents to reach out to senators and members of Congress, who have a say at the federal level.
“This is happening all over the country,” Fellman said. “Fortunately, in most cases, the people from the companies who are trying to get sites up recognize the frustrations and hurdles that local government have in this uncertain regulatory environment.”
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