February 20th Committee of the Whole Meeting Highlights
COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA February 21, 2018 – (LSN) Following are highlights and key priorities covered at the Tuesday, Feb 21 Committee of the Whole meeting. New in 2018, Committee of the Whole meetings are taking place at 5 pm on the third Tuesday of the month, rather than at 1 pm, and allows for public comment and question.
Public Comment Period
1) Resident Arvis Thompson asked a question about the Consent Agenda and requested a copy of the policy. Explanation of the policy was provided. Consent items are continuing business items and items that have already been budgeted for. Consent agenda items are included in the Public Board Packet available for review on the County website on the Thursday prior to the meeting. Commissioners can ask to pull individual items at any meeting.
Ms. Thompson also asked about the difference of getting a loan and bonding. Bonding is the statutory process provided for local units of government to finance projects. Cities and Counties cannot go to the bank and get a loan. Different types of bonds can fund different types of projects or purchases, and each different type has a required public process. Typically, the length of the bond should be less than, or equal to, the life of the project or piece of equipment.
Overview of Proposed Communication Tower Ordinance Revision
This is the beginning of a process to revise the County’s Tower Facilities Ordinance. A presentation by MIS Director Rena Rogers, provided an opportunity for County Commissioners and the public to get an overview of what is being proposed and why. This is the first step in a more in-depth public engagement process over the coming months.
Cook County’s current Tower Ordinance was drafted in 2001 and included several benefits:
- Goal of encouraging co-location to limit the number of towers
- Limited height restrictions to avoid visibility of tower lights
- Other general permitting requirements that would control the impact on the environment and the health and safety of residents.
However, many factors have changed in the bigger environment since then that weren’t addressed in the original ordinance, and this revision is an opportunity to make the Ordinance more effective. Contributing factors and background info include:
- The Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 mandated that State and local governments must approve eligible facilities requests (that do not substantially change the physical dimension of such towers) to ensure the timely deployment of wireless services. The current Ordinance made cell service co-location subject to the same process as building a new tower. Since this was a Conditional Use Permit process, the applicant could be denied. This is in conflict with the Federal regulations and ironically, the Policy did not really provide any incentive to co-locate which was in conflict with its primary goal of encouraging co-location.
- The State of MN Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communication Network Division (ECN) has signed on to a Federal communication program called FirstNet. It provides a dedicated cell service network for public safety providers. AT&T is the vendor in charge of FirstNet and is under contract to build out this network over the next five years. The excess cell service capacity (when not being used by public safety) will be available for use by the public - not exclusive to AT&T; in fact, other providers like Verizon and T-Mobile can compete.
Because of this push for cell service, the County’s Ordinance needs to align with Federal Law. As well, Cook County needs to be ready for co-location or these providers will work to build single-service towers, and because of the 2012 legislation, the County will have very little or no ability to manage this.
- A little over a year ago, Cook County MIS went through a public process to create a Tower Request Policy. This Policy has a stated purpose of trying to balance services while reducing the negative impacts of towers. This is achieved by assigning priority to the types of services towers provide and trying to manage the tower infrastructure owned by the County to include high-priority services and minimize the proliferation of towers. The revision of the Tower Facility Ordinance brings the Policy and Ordinance in line.
Basics of the Proposed Ordinance
There are towers in key locations throughout the County. These locations already have infrastructure that support towers such as access roads, backhaul and electrical service. These 11 towers were primarily built in these locations because of their proximity to roads and people, and these are the locations most applicants are seeking. Most of these towers have lots of space on them, which means if we can direct applicants to these towers to co-locate we can minimize the need for additional towers.
The proposed revised ordinance differs from the original in that it encourages co-location by handling it through a request process. The process includes Land Services who advices when a Land Use Permit is needed.
Secondly, the revised ordinance creates Communication Districts, which are zoning districts defined by the parcel boundaries of existing towers. If a co-location request is made and the tower is not able to support the additional equipment, the next step for the applicant is to build a tower in the Communication District. Since the County owns most of the land that towers are currently on, this would be a public process and begin with approval by the Commissioners and then the appropriate studies and permits would follow. This protects our view shed (towers in one location versus seeing one in every direction) and prevents the construction on a new site (tearing up another high spot).
Finally, if this is not workable or approved, the applicant could request to build a tower in another location, which would require a Conditional Use Permit Process that involves public notification and comments.
To build a tower, whether it is in a communication district or outside of a communication district, requires many layers of documentation providing that co-location is not possible.
Any County Ordinance is subject to jurisdiction. The County does not have zoning authority over the United States Forest Service (USFS) National Forest Lands, the Department of Natural Resources or Tribal Lands. So, if the County says no to tower requests, the applicant may seek to put up a tower in these other locations. The County’s current Ordinance makes co-location as difficult as building a tower. Under these conditions, the cell provider might choose to bypass the County and work with one of these other jurisdictions.
“The main objective of this Ordinance is to encourage and enable tower co-location, in key locations where infrastructure already exists,” said Rena Rogers, Director – Cook County MIS Department. “If we make that relatively easy, the County will have an impact on limiting tower proliferation that is much greater than its authority.”
Public Input & Ordinance Process
County Government has been listening to public concerns about tower proliferation, and other tower related issues. For this reason, we are proposing these updates to the Tower Ordinance allowing us to better manage the impacts of change, and specifically FirstNet. Cook County may not be able to slow or stop these changes, but we can manage them to minimize impacts through revisions to the Tower Facility Ordinance.
Once the draft ordinance is finalized, it will be published to the County website and a public hearing will be held at a Planning Commission Meeting (tentatively April 11). Notice of the public meeting and any input opportunities will also be published in the local paper and online.
Once the Planning Commission approves the draft of the new ordinance, it would be forwarded to the full County Board for final approval (potentially April 24).
ARMER Tower at Seagull Lake
Discussion of a proposed ARMER communications tower at the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department Hall 3 at Seagull Lake was held. As of last week, MnDOT has approached the USFS to understand and potentially obtain any necessary permitting that would be required to place an 80’ tower and small equipment shelter at Hall 3. This option is being considered as a potential alternative to constructing significantly taller towers in other locations along the Gunflint Trail and would be a collaborative effort between the State, County, and Fire Department to provide ARMER radio coverage for the end of the trail area while minimizing the aesthetic impact a taller communication tower would have.
Once all the necessary technical and financial information is collected, Cook County’s MIS Department, the Office of Emergency Management & Public Information and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, along with related partners, will host a Public Information & Input Session on the proposed tower. Details of public input opportunities will be published once they are confirmed.
Concerns voiced included:
- need for the tower?
- public safety usage and radio coverage,
- and preservation of the area
Full details of Committee of the Whole Meetings are available through video footage, Agendas and Minutes at www.co.cook.mn.us. All County Board and Committee of the Whole Meetings are open to the public.