North Myrtle Beach City Hall

North Myrtle Beach City Hall. Photo by Christian Boschult 

Small cell towers are coming to North Myrtle Beach, like it or not. 

Thanks to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission rule, cities are limited in the application fees they can charge small cell tower providers like AT&T and Verizon to put their installations into public rights of way, and municipal governments have only limited options in how to regulate them. Providers have already reached out to North Myrtle about installing towers, so the city is now preparing an ordinance to deal with them to the extent legally possibly. 

“The federal government has tied your hands on recouping your actual cost of what it’s going to be to process these applications,” said Mayor Marilyn Hatley after a workshop on Wednesday. “It’s a very limited amount of money that they allow you to collect from these small cell tower companies. It’s just something that we’ll have to deal with because our hands are tied.” 

A handful of cities including Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have already sued the FCC over the rules. They lost last year. 

Small cell, or “microcell” towers are miniature cell towers that are small enough to be installed within or on smaller infrastructure like street lights or utility poles. Their 5G technology is used to supplement coverage for areas served by the larger macro towers and handle some of the load, but they generally only provide coverage within the view of the structure, so it takes a lot of them to provide adequate coverage. 

By definition, the structures on which small cell towers are installed must be 50 feet or shorter in height, or no more than 10% taller than other adjacent structures. Or, if mounted on an existing structure, the antenna can’t increase the height of the structure by more than 10%.

South Carolina passed a bill last year with its own fee schedule that adheres to the FCC rules for reviewing applications. The city can charge no more than $100 for each of the first five small cell towers listed on a single application, and $50 for subsequent towers listed in the same application. The city can charge up to $250 for facilities in modified or replacement poles, or up to $1,000 for small cell towers placed in new poles. 

The city can also ask that the small cell equipment be installed within existing city infrastructure, or in poles that matches the design and style of the surrounding city infrastructure. But because the small cell providers already have the right to install their towers in public rights of way, the city can only enforce the design and style rules if it’s “technically feasible” for the provider to adhere to them.

“This is a sticky wicket,” said Christine Gillan with Gunnerson Consulting, who’s helping the city draft an ordinance to manage the cell towers. “The federal law mandates cities to allow small cell in their public right of way. The cities have control over the design of the small cell and they have the ability to recoup their actual reasonable costs. In terms of design, as long as our design is uniformly applied to all the different carriers and is uniform to everybody else we have who use the right of way, as long as we’re using the same design requirements, we can use those design requirements for small cell carriers.” 

That’s only if the carriers feel that they can work within those requirements. 

“There’s a loophole for the carrier, where if they argue that the design we want them to follow is not technically feasible to them, they can argue that they don’t have to follow that design,” Gunnerson said. 

City spokesperson Pat Dowling said that the city will encourage small cell providers to make use of existing infrastructure first, and if that’s not possible, will require them to build towers that mimic existing city infrastructure, such as imitating existing street lights. 

The cost of actually installing the equipment and repairing any damage to city infrastructure caused by the installation will be the responsibility of the provider, Dowling added. 

Under state law, if the city doesn’t like a small cell tower location that’s marked in an application, the city can offer an alternate location within 150 feet of the original proposal, and the provider would have to adhere to that recommendation. At least, they would as long as it’s “technically feasible” for them to do so. 

“I think the municipalities should be allowed to control what comes into their communities, such as this,” said Hatley. “This is our community, we pay the bills, we take care of the right-of-ways, and we should be allowed to have a little more control on size and on what distances we should be able to place these small cell towers. To me, it’s almost like a taking.” 

If North Myrtle decided to decline a small cell tower application altogether, there could be consequences. 

“Hopefully – what we anticipate – is cooperation with the carriers. They’ll want to make the city happy, they’ll want to keep North Myrtle Beach as pretty as it is,” Gillan said. “The city could put its foot down, and they could say no to certain situations, but there could be legal ramifications if they do.” 

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