Johnson City sets aesthetic guidelines for small cell tech

David Floyd • Updated Aug 2, 2019 at 9:33 AM

Picture a wooden pole cluttered with various pieces of visible technology — wires, antennas, an electric meter, a radio.

That’s the worst case scenario for the deployment of a small cell wireless device, said Johnson City Senior Planner Matthew Manley. Its something that the city hopes to avoid with the passage of a new ordinance designed to regulate the aesthetic requirements of the technology.

“The effort is really to blend in with the existing environment,” Manley said. “For the sake of technology and improved cell phone coverage, we don’t want to introduce something that could be considered visual clutter.”

Johnson City commissioners approved new guidelines Thursday that would continue to allow the deployment of new communications technology in Johnson City while also protecting local historic districts, residential neighborhoods and scenic corridors from “visual clutter.”

Cell phone companies can oftentimes place this technology on existing infrastructure like poles or signs. In Johnson City, companies would be able to modify or replace a pole or support structure if they meet the requirements of the ordinance and receive permission from the city. Hollow poles would allow the companies to conceal much of the technology.

“Johnson City is way out in front on this ordinance,” Manley told commissioners. “We have several other cities that are requesting our ordinance so that they can model theirs after ours, so we recognize the newness of all this.”

Right now, these regulations would currently affect 4G systems in the city, Manley said. They could eventually apply to 5G technologies as cell phone companies begin deploying that technology, but Manley said that likely won’t happen anytime soon.

“5G is not even rolled out in the major metros,” he said. Manley anticipates it could be years before it reaches a city like Johnson City.

The ordinance breaks the city into five districts, each with their own design standards: General commercial, general residential, historic residential, historic commercial, and school zones and parks. Each district sets requirements for height, size, color and light and also sets aesthetic and diameter requirements for poles.

“The poles should all look like our other poles,” Manley said.

Four of the five districts set a maximum height of 25 feet and a maximum width of six inches at the height of five feet on the pole, which mirrors light poles downtown. The general commercial district has the most flexible height and diameter requirements that allows for larger poles.

Companies would be able to appeal to the Planning Commission if they want to install small cell wireless infrastructure that doesn’t meet all the specifications in the ordinance.

As wireless technology develops, Manley told commissioners that there could be some need to tweak the ordinance.

“If there’s some need to change our existing wireless communications ordinance to be able to accommodate 5G, then that might need to be a discussion that we have at that time,” Manley told commissioners. “But that’s currently not here.”

Editor’s note: Manley later noted that 5G technology actually has been deployed in major metro areas like Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis and Washington D.C.

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