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Tim Steller's opinion: New 5G poles don't belong in Tucsonans' front yards
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Tim Steller's opinion: New 5G poles don't belong in Tucsonans' front yards

Correction: This column has been corrected to reflect the fact that Verizon prefers to use existing infrastructure rather than putting up new poles. 

The first sign you see may be men trenching and boring the ground along the edge of your street.

Or you may be lucky enough to get a flyer on your door handle, or a knock on your door to let you know they’re coming.

Before you know it, a gleaming, 35-foot cell pole stands on your street — maybe right in front of your house.

In Tucson, in midtown, on the far south side and on the near northwest side, the process has been playing out for months. Telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T are pulling permits and hiring contractors to put the poles up fast. Dozens have already appeared. Many more are in the works.

“There will be thousands of these throughout the city,” said Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik. “What we’re seeing will be repeated throughout the city.”

In some cases the poles may be placed well, unobtrusively. In other sites, the workers bore through the roots of old trees and set up a silver pole right in front of someone’s house.

Someone like Latisha Jones.

“As far as this 5G pole, I don’t like it here,” said Jones, standing on her porch at the corner of East Justin Lane and North Sycamore Boulevard in midtown. “It felt like they could do whatever they want on people’s property.”

The property doesn’t belong to Jones, who has rented it for years, but neither she nor her landlord, Jo Riester, are happy with the pole’s placement in front of the house.

“If they even would have put the pole behind the house with the other poles, that’s fine,” Jones said. “Why in front of somebody’s house where they live at? They make it hard to get in and out of the driveway. It’s just a hassle.”

Riester is concerned, among other things, that the pole will reduce the value of the home, which is where she grew up. Both she and Jones also noted that the city has regularly warned or cited them for the weeds growing in the same patch of ground where the small-cell pole now stands.

That raises the question: If the owner or renter are responsible for keeping that plot of land clean, then why can’t they decide whether they want a pole placed there?

If you think you’re losing some dollars and cents over your WiFi signal, PennyGem’s Justin Kircher has some ways to save.

Well, that’s a story, one that Kozachik is learning to tell. And he explained it to me in a few conversations last week.

The telecommunication companies need lots of smaller poles to support their 5G networks. And federal law preempts states, while state law preempts cities, from doing much of anything about where they place their poles — as long as they place them in the public right of way.

Spots like the one outside Jones’ home are next to the curb, and therefore part of the right of way. The city has no right to block it.

“The permit is just a rubber stamp because the state law has a shot clock built into it,” Kozachik said. “If we don’t approve it within 75 days, it’s assumed to be approved.”

Kozachik has been working with the various sides of this issue — residents, the city and telecoms — for months. He doesn’t hold the telecoms blameless, but he’s been most frustrated with the city bureaucracy.

Yes, their hands are tied, he acknowledged, but they’re not giving the ward offices and residents enough warning about where the companies want to build. With more warning, the council offices and residents could divert them from putting up the most obnoxious poles.

“I’m more frustrated with city staff than I am with the telecom industry,” Kozachik said. “Nobody from city staff is connecting those dots and saying ‘there’s another way of doing this.’”

Sergio Avila, who lives in Ward 3’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, said neither the city nor the local contractors have let the neighbors there know what’s going on.

“There’s zero communication,” he said. “They just show up one day and start digging.”

What Kozachik wants is not just early warning from the city, but also an effort to get the companies to put their 5G equipment on existing poles. As anyone who has ever tried to take a photo in Tucson knows, utility poles are everywhere — unavoidable. And though the city doesn’t have as many streetlights as most, those, too, can be used.

In addition, Kozachik has suggested placing the 5G poles where street signs go, and using the new poles for the street signs. Anything to reduce the number of poles littering the landscape.

The City Council will discuss these issues at the Tuesday, Feb. 23, study session, which begins at 12:30 p.m.

Sometimes the contractors actually respond to complaints. Real estate agent Kelly Button sold a home to a buyer moving from California, only for the buyer to learn after closing that Verizon planned to put a pole right outside her bedroom window.

After Kozachik set up a meeting by Zoom, Verizon agreed to move the pole closer to the nearby intersection, Button said.

“Putting these poles in front of our houses is, in my opinion, completely unacceptable,” she said. “You put a 35-foot pole in front of somebody’s home, that’s going to hit property values.”

But the solution Kozachik proposes is unlikely to be attractive to the companies. Putting up a new pole is a relatively simple process involving a permit and hiring contractors who are doing this work all over town.

Putting the 5G equipment on existing poles likely means complications and costs. Tucson Electric Power spokesman Joe Salkowski said the utility is required to allow telecommunications companies to use its poles, but the added equipment may mean the company must replace a utility pole, which could cost more than $30,000.

However, Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said the company prefers using existing polls for its network. 

"Our preference is to use existing city and utility infrastructure (street lights and utility poles) whenever possible," she said via email. " However, engineering limitations on and around existing infrastructure may prevent co-locations at times."

If even the companies want this, the city should make it happen. As Kozachik proposed, the city should start pushing Verizon, AT&T and the other companies to put their 5G equipment on whatever existing poles work.

Contact opinion columnist Tim Steller at: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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