Homeowners from the Glencairn neighborhood were out in force at East Lansing’s City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to tell council members in no uncertain terms they do not want 40-foot-tall cell towers built along the sidewalks right in front of their homes.
But city staff responded there may be no legal path that can be carved out to stop the construction of the towers. That’s because state law preempts most municipal control in this matter.
Several East Lansing residents spoke out on social media and at the council meeting after two advertisements ran in the Dec. 27 edition of the Lansing State Journal stating a company called Crown Castle plans to build two towers, one in the Glencairn neighborhood and one in Bailey.
Homeowners are particularly upset about the plan to locate these towers right in front of single-family homes along the roadway.
Weeks before this meeting, city staff told ELi there have been some conversations between city staff and Crown Castle about more than 50 towers being built in the city beginning this year.
But Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson told Council on Jan. 17 the company has not yet applied for the construction permits. She said currently, there are 12 small cell towers scattered around East Lansing.
Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser told Council small cell towers are exempt from review under the city’s existing zoning ordinance unless they exceed 40 feet. He said towers over 40 feet require a Special Use Permit (SUP) to be built. SUPs require council approval.
City Attorney Anthony Chubb explained that language in the state statute regulating small cell towers may make it difficult for the city to impose its own rules beyond the degree to which it already has in the ordinance.
“The [state’s] limitations are highly technical and would likely make it very difficult to regulate, especially from a physical design standpoint,” he said.
Chubb continued on to say that once the city receives applications, city administration will work to find out if there are ways to relocate the towers to more desirable locations like traffic circles or public buildings or to work with Crown Castle to change the design of the towers.
Chubb also said he is investigating whether there are any local municipalities that have been able to work around the state statute to more tightly regulate construction of small cell towers, but he is not aware of any yet.
McPherson clarified that communications with Crown Castle go back a few years. She talked with company representatives in late 2020 when they informed the city of the intention to install towers.
In April 2022, Crown Castle showed staff a draft map with dots where towers might be built. That map has not yet been made publicly available. (ELi has requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.)
City staff talked with Crown Castle again in December 2022. However, a timeline for the project was not presented and city staff was not made aware the public notice would be posted in the Lansing State Journal later that month.
There are so many towers being installed because each one only has a 500-foot service radius, McPherson explained. The towers would expand 5G coverage for Verizon customers. The proposal also indicates 60 towers will also be installed in Lansing.
Information about the towers wasn’t publicly available sooner because Crown Castle has not yet applied for permits to install the towers, McPherson said. The city recently added a page to its website providing information on small cell towers.
McPherson also explained that the state statute allows for the small cell towers to be built in the public right-of-way. Since there is no public right-of-way on Michigan State University’s campus, the plan does not include towers on campus.
The public-right of way in residential East Lansing neighborhoods typically includes the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. In East Lansing neighborhoods without sidewalks, the right-of-way may look like part of the homeowner’s property, but is actually public land.
Public speaks out against towers being added
Several East Lansing residents voiced concerns about the towers being built right in front of their homes and Crown Castle’s process for undertaking this work.
Glencairn resident Marc Breedlove’s own home address was given for one of the planned locations for a tower. He told Council he was not notified that the tower may be built on the right-of-way that runs along the frontage of his property.
“We live there,” he said. ”Shouldn’t we have a voice in where exactly they go?”
Breedlove pointed out the advertisement ran in the LSJ the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when many East Lansing residents were traveling and newspaper readership was likely lower than usual.
Breedlove also asked why Crown Castle chose these locations and why the company only provided two locations in the Lansing State Journal advertisement, instead of the dozens the company informed the city about. He and others wanted to know why the towers can’t be placed in parks and traffic circles or on public buildings like the Hannah Community Center.
Multiple speakers expressed concerns over the impact the towers may have on property values.
“It certainly is going to have a very adversarial effect on our property values,” Glencairn resident and former Downtown Development Authority chair Peter Dewan said. “I would hope that the city would be an advocate on behalf of its residents.”
Several Glencairn neighborhood residents said there is not a need for better cell service in the area.
One speaker, Leo Sell from the Bailey neighborhood, did support the installation of the towers due to “abysmal” coverage near his home. But his opinion was clearly in the minority at the meeting.
Jessy Gregg discloses a conflict of interest and asks the city attorney if recusal is necessary.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said she has asked Chubb if she should recuse herself from voting on matters pertaining to small cell towers because her husband works for ACD, a competitor of Crown Castle. She said ACD installed 4G towers in East Lansing in 2015.
“I just want to publicly state that this industry is the industry that supports my household’s income,” she said. “I don’t want there to be any perception that I have prejudice either way on their project because my husband bids against them.”
Not removing herself from the conversation, Gregg later explained to those at the meeting that the expansion of cell towers is widespread because of the public’s increased reliance on cellular data to use the internet.
“This is happening in every community in the world actually,” she said. “That’s the direction that the technology is moving in.”
Brookover pushes for a public forum, alternate routes of action.
Councilmember George Brookover suggested the city hold a public forum regarding the towers that includes representatives from both Crown Castle and Verizon. In response, McPherson said she asked Crown Castle if a representative could attend the Jan. 17 meeting, but they had declined. She said Crown Castle seems open to a representative attending a future meeting.
Brookover also said while past efforts to change the state law have failed, there is a new Michigan state legislature that may be open to amending the law if East Lansing city staff and residents speak out.
The city website says members of the public can reach out to Crown Castle at Lansingarea@crowncastle.com. Crown Castle has not responded to a previous email asking for comment from ELi.