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‘I felt nauseous,’ Bucks County woman says of plan for 48-foot 5G cell tower in her front yard

Homeowners confront the leading edge of the next telecom wireless wave -- small cells antennas -- which can be on poles 48 feet tall. Telecom firms and companies could install more than one million of these antennas on utility poles over the next decade.

Hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of small cell antennas will be placed on light poles and traffic lights over the next several years, mostly without homeowner or resident consent.  Doylestown Township homeowner Dawn van Rijn and her husband Paul stand with the light pole that would be replaced with a tower four times taller in their front yard.
Hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of small cell antennas will be placed on light poles and traffic lights over the next several years, mostly without homeowner or resident consent. Doylestown Township homeowner Dawn van Rijn and her husband Paul stand with the light pole that would be replaced with a tower four times taller in their front yard.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

In 1994, Dawn and Paul van Rijn bought a 2,100-square-foot sample home at Victorian Gardens in Doylestown Township with dreams of a family and suburban life. Over 25 years there, they raised a son, Zach, and planted a vegetable garden along with apple and peach trees.

All was good. And a decade ago, when Verizon upgraded the area with Fios television and internet services, the telecom company even pulled fiber wires through underground conduits tunneled through the central Bucks County town, preserving one of the characteristics of Victorian Gardens: no aboveground wires.

So it came as a shock when the van Rijns returned from work about six weeks ago to find an orange construction cone and spray-painted markings in one corner of their front yard. What was that? they asked.

The answer came in a call the next day to Doylestown Township Manager Stephanie Mason: Telecom infrastructure firm Crown Castle was putting a new 48-foot-tall small cell antenna in their public right-of-way, replacing a lamppost. Four times taller than the existing lamppost as permitted, the pole would be topped with an antenna to broaden wireless coverage in the Doylestown Township area and could be upgraded to superfast 5G.

“I felt nauseous,” Dawn said.

Welcome, homeowners, to the leading edge of the next telecom wireless wave: small cell antennas, many of which will go on existing utility poles but others that will need new poles.

Already there are more than 1,800 small cell antennas in Philadelphia — with thousands more expected in the city — and discussions over them have occurred in the Main Line towns of Lower Merion and Radnor. Telecom firms and companies such as Crown Castle could install more than one million small cell antennas over the next decade nationwide, even as homeowners fear lower property values and local government officials say they will lose zoning control over rights-of-way in their municipalities.

The issue is heating up. Last September, the Federal Communications Commission enacted new rules that set deadlines and fees for local officials to approve or deny small cell antenna applications in local towns. Cities such as Philadelphia opposed the new rules. And the legislatures in more than 20 states have passed wireless-friendly laws.

Three times the Pennsylvania legislature failed to pass an industry-friendly 5G bill in recent years. But the industry got a big boost in June 2018 when Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court reversed a decision by the Public Utilities Commission and decided that companies such as Crown Castle should be granted utility status. This gave them virtually unfettered access to public rights of way for small cell antennas — as they have done on the van Rijn property near the road, which is part of the public right-of-way. The PUC has appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Using the public rights-of-way — as electric companies do — saves money for telecom companies that don’t have to buy land, and then have it properly zoned and permitted, for big cellular towers to broaden wireless coverage for more bars on smartphones. In support of small cell antennas, the wireless industry and local officials say that many residents would like more robust wireless coverage and fewer dropped calls.

Small cell antennas also will lead to super-fast 5G services. The Trump administration has said that the United States has to be a global leader in 5G, beating China in this key field. 5G service will lead to driverless cars, industry officials say. It also is expected to enhance telemedicine, giving caregivers many more ways to track and help patients. Wireless companies say they will offer high-speed internet services over super-fast broadband networks to compete with Comcast and other cable companies.

“We didn’t change the rules,” Township Manager Mason said, noting that Crown Castle applied for the permits for the small cell antennas in March. “The rules changed on us. This is in the right-of-way and we have been told that we don’t control that anymore.”

Mason said she suggested Peco electric poles across the street from the van Rijn’s home for the small cell antenna. But Crown Castle responded that Peco wouldn’t allow a small cell antenna on the poles because of the high-voltage electric lines, she said.

Based on local ordinances and state and federal laws and rules, telecom companies have only to seek a “road-occupancy permit” in Doylestown Township for a small cell antenna, Mason said. The municipality has approved 10 small cells for Crown Castle, in addition to the one for the van Rijn front yard, Mason said.

Other telecom companies can apply for road-occupancy permits for small cells in the township but Mason hopes that Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile will share the small cells, or co-locate their equipment.

An emotional Dawn van Rijn said that the township never told them in a phone call, or letter, that Crown Castle was considering their home for a small cell. Mason said the issue was discussed publicly by township supervisors and posted on the township’s Facebook page and on the township’s web page. Neither Dawn nor Paul use social media, and they don’t check the township website, they said.

Shortly after the orange cone appeared in their front yard and both Dawn and Paul called township offices, Crown Castle manager John Shive visited their home. He brought with him development plans like ones used by zoning officials for additions or construction with pictures of their home and drawings of the pole — plans which the van Rijns had never seen before.

Dawn cried, begging Shive to put the small cell on another property. “Would you do this to your mother or your wife?” she asked him.

Paul, a reserved native of the Netherlands, asked “Why take the littlest property and home and put a big pole on it? It should be our choice what goes on our property.” He said that there was an “unfairness to it” and observed that telecom firms will be making money off the pole in his front yard.

Crown Castle spokeswoman Ana Rua said on Tuesday that the company “has operated with full transparency and openness with the township" and that Crown Castle expects to “deliver and build as planned. We hope to build the proposed nodes.” She said that 80 percent of 911 calls are made from mobile devices and the nodes would enhance connectivity.

Crown Castle has discussed shortening the pole in the van Rijn’s yard by 10 feet. Rua confirmed possible modifications to the pole but would not say what they were. The van Rijns are not satisfied with a shorter pole.

On Aug. 30, the couple met with lawyer Jordan B. Yeager, the solicitor for neighboring Doylestown Borough, which paid $150,000 in legal fees to fight Crown Castle over its plan to add small cell antennas in the borough’s historic district without its consent.

Yeager explained that Crown Castle came to both the borough and the township with its plan for broader wireless coverage with small cell antennas. “[Verizon] had a vision for the whole area and what they wanted to provide,” Yeager said. “The municipal boundaries are a mere afterthought for them.”

While the township took a “wait-and-see approach,” Yeager said, Doylestown Borough held public hearings on Crown Castle’s small cells plan and later sued. The borough settled with Crown Castle in 2018 with a partial victory. Crown Castle agreed to negotiate the location of the antennas and share some of the revenue from the small cells with the borough.

Dawn van Rijn told Yeager that the small cell would bring her property value down. Yeager agreed that the proposed tower in their front yard was a “significant change to your property.” A real estate agent who is fiercely proud of her home, she added: “I don’t want a buzzing black box that emits radio frequencies in my yard."