Milton suspends annual cell tower fees

Less than a year after passing one of the area's toughest cell tower laws, Milton is taking a step back.

The Milton City Council on Wednesday night voted unanimously to suspend the annual fees and registration requirements within the ordinance for nine months -- or until they survive a legal challenge in another jurisdiction.

The action comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed this year against Liberty County that claims the county's licensing and zoning laws restrict telecom companies from doing business.

Milton's ordinance, passed last August and based on the Liberty County law, requires companies to pay an annual operating license fee of $1,000 per tower and $1,000 per antenna array.

Representatives from AT&T, Verizon Wireless and the Georgia Wireless Association opposed the fees at a public meeting last August, insisting the companies could perform and certify many of the required administrative functions.

The city council action does not change the bulk of the ordinance. Still intact are portions governing the application process and policies regarding location and height of cell towers. Companies are required to pay a $2,000 application fee, plus actual consulting costs up to $7,500.

Wednesday's vote was encouraging news to Jonathan Campbell, government affairs counsel for the Wireless Infrastructure Association, a national trade group representing the wireless telecommunications industry.

It gives both sides an opportunity to sit down and discuss how they can address each others' concerns, Campbell said.

"As a whole, the fee structure they have proposed we feel is not really related to the actual regulation of wireless facilities ... and we have some concerns it may be counter to Georgia law," he said.

Milton City Attorney Ken Jarrard said placing a moratorium on the annual requirements makes sense until the Liberty County case is resolved. Milton is already in litigation with T-Mobile over denial of permits sought for two cell towers in April last year.

While telecom companies often pay landowners for use of the property, several local governments have stepped up efforts to restrict their growth. Most require a series of public hearings. In recent years, governments have added application fees to cover administrative costs to ensure the structures meet specifications.

Cobb County School District and others consider the towers a financial resource. The district receives $900,000 per year from the 30 towers allowed at 24 of its schools. More than half of that money stays at the school.

Schools spokesman Jay Dillon said the district has five pages of rules governing cell tower construction on school property. Schools hold public hearings and notify parents before a decision is made. The construction must also make it through two board meetings, Dillon said.

Residents of Powder Springs convinced the district to vote down a tower planned for Compton Elementary last spring.

"We have had some resistance in certain areas of the county and we've not built a tower as a result," Dillon said. "But we do have 30 that are in place, and they're doing great things for those schools."