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Township Seeks to Strengthen Zoning, Right-of-Way Ordinances

The Warminster administration wants to prevent a situation similar to what happened in Northampton Township over the summer, when ATC plan to install poles on the township right-of-way sparked a contentious legal battle.

The demand for wireless access will only continue to rise as technology advances, and utility companies are working overtime to keep up with the public's needs. Providing that important service should not, however, trump the governance of a local municipality. That was perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the summer-long legal battle between Northampton Township and American Tower Corporation (ATC), an ugly situation that the Warminster Board of Sueprvisors hope to prevent.

At last week's township meeting, the board approved by a unanimous 5-0 vote the motion to pay attorney Daniel Cohen no more than $9,900 to review and revise Warminster's zoning and right-of-way ordinances to strengthen them against IT companies that may try to circumvent the process.

"Most township ordinances in regards to cell phone towers haven't been revised since the telecommunications act of 1996," said Cohen during a presentation before the board on Thursday. "Since then, the technology has become much more complex and municipalities need to be better prepared with new regulatory structures. Northampton was kind of ground zero for this."

Last April, Northampton residents in neighborhoods with underground utilities noticed workers spraying white circles on their lawns. Investigations revealed that the circles marked where ATC planned to install 45-foot poles called Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). The DAS connects to existing fiber optic cables and then rent the antenna to wireless providers, such as T-Mobile.

ATC sued for the right to install the towers after receiving a certificate from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) in 2008, equating the antenna systems as a utility.

"With this certificate, ATC believed it had unfettered access to Northampton's right-of-way," said Cohen.

Northampton residents formed advocacy groups and fought back, directing their anger both at ATC and township administration for not properly communicating with the residents about the situation. The pushback ultimately resulted in agreement by ATC to relocate 12 poles scheduled for installation in neighborhoods with underground utilities. 

Township solicitor Mary Eberle referred to Cohen as an expert in cable and wireless regulatory issues was confident that his expertise will help Warminster have more control over the zoning and right-of-way approval process. The board asked Cohen to present his recommendations by the middle of February.

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