Council grants initial approval to new telecommunications ordinance

Long-delayed legislation better addresses cell carrier, municipal needs.

Following a delay of nearly four months, Cherry Hill Township council reintroduced and approved on first reading an ordinance that sets forth guidelines for installing wireless telecommunications equipment on municipal rights-of-way. 

Originally introduced and approved on a first reading on March 22, the ordinance was placed on subsequent meeting agendas, only to be pulled before further discussion.  Since then, township administrators revisited the issue to work out some finer points of language in the legislation and to further confer with small-cell carriers on their particular objections. 

“We took another look at it after hearing from the carriers after the last first reading, that the ordinance was too restrictive and was basically not going to permit any of these small-cell wireless facilities,” said Township Business Administrator Erin Patterson Gill on July 12. 

“And if challenged in court, we were likely to lose,” she added. “So we took it back. Our ability to regulate this is for aesthetic purposes. We kind of fine tuned it. Nothing major,  but substantive enough that we were going to have to reintroduce.”

As discussed during the late March meeting, a significant portion of laws governing signal boosting telecommunications apparati are federal, with some state regulation. At the local level, there is limited ability to regulate wireless carriers, but more leeway to regulate the manner in which small-cell carriers install their equipment. 

Federal law allows these carriers to install their instruments on public property, including utility poles. While the township can’t prevent that, it can enact legislation to control their appearance. 

Natalie Shafiroff, township supervisor of community development, explained that more concerns were raised on the impact of the facilities within neighborhoods than any other area. So instead of approaching each new small-cell construct as a whole, the township decided to enact more stringent rules in residential areas, as opposed to commercial zones. 

“We met the providers half way,” she said. “In our commercial zones, we allowed the total increase in height to go up to 50 feet. But what we did in our residential zones was to restrict height to 35 feet. And we’re requiring all these facilities be brand-new, stealth infrastructure.” 

Shafiroff also said the township was not happy with what small-cell equipment looked like when attached to an existing telephone pole. Carriers agreed to install new stealth poles, with the realization that the majority of poles in residential areas are actually not usable due to previous installation of solar panels and primary power equipment on them. 

The new ordinance also includes specific restrictions on how close facilities can be to each other: at least 250 feet apart, which would preclude any carrier from placing two poles in close proximity. In addition, new poles cannot be placed in front of any residence; rather, new installations must be situated between two houses or on a corner where no house is located, according to Shafiroff.

Though a second reading and public comment were expected at council’s April 12 online session, and the ordinance was placed on the meeting agenda, Council President David Fleisher announced at that time that it would instead be discussed at a future meeting. 

Several meetings passed with the ordinance listed, only for no action to be taken and no specific explanation given beyond the township’s need to review language within.

Per Township Director of Communications Michelle Caffrey, the ordinance was repeatedly listed on meeting agendas in the meantime, in case the necessary changes were minor enough to not require a second reading. 

Since the alterations turned out to be substantive, such as changing some of the height specifications in different zones and adding restrictions to the locations of facilities in residential zones, council was compelled to reintroduce for a new first reading.

Barring any further objections, the ordinance is slated to be read a second time and public comment will be welcome at council’s next public meeting on July 26. 

In other news:

  • With formal introduction and adoption of the 2022 municipal budget expected some time in August, council pushed through a resolution adopting temporary appropriations. By law, the holdover amount cannot exceed 26.25 percent of the total amount of the budget from the preceding fiscal year. According to township Chief Financial Officer Michelle Samalonis, the temporary budget amount is $25.658 million.
  • Council unanimously approved the appointing of Patti Chacker to the roles of township clerk; registrar of vital statistics; and director of the division of licensing, vital statistics and animal control. Checker takes over for Nancy Saffos, who announced her retirement earlier in July. Fleisher stated that Saffos will be fittingly honored by council at an upcoming meeting. 
  • The governing body also approved the appointment of Jay Sklivas as director for the Department of Public Works. He has worked with the township for 33 years.
  • An ordinance on second reading that sought to amend a previous zoning ordinance dealing with drive-through businesses, as recommended by the township planning board, was pulled from the agenda and is expected to be discussed at council’s July 26 session.