It was only a matter of time before it happened, but a candidate for office in the upscale Westchester County, N.Y., community of Lewisboro has called for the creation of a municipal utility to offer residents cellular phone service.
Local conservative columnist J.D. Piro, writing in the local weekly, The Lewisboro Ledger, reported statements by Tom Herzog, the nominal Republican candidate for town supervisor, during a debate last week, and took them to their logical conclusion.
"Saying that cell phone service is now a 'necessity,' Mr. Herzog suggested, in all apparent seriousness, that cell phone service should be a public utility, reasoning that people would then treat cell towers like telephone poles.
"Now there are really only two ways to make cell phone service into a public utility. One is for the government to seize the local assets of the commercial wireless service providers in the area. Perhaps Mr. Herzog, who claims to be a fiscal conservative, can consult with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the cheapest way to do that. The second way is to spend several million dollars developing a local operation to compete with companies that have a national service footprint and 20 years of experience.
"Since Lewisboro is not Venezuela, it's doubtful the first option will get out of the box. The second option represents a significant budget expenditure, since Lewisboro – a town that can't even expand its library – would have to build a functional digital cellular system from scratch. Not even the fiscally questionable wireless initiatives being considered by a number of U.S. municipalities attempt to do that."
It's a classic example of how even at the lowest levels, governments never shy away from finding more ways to increase size and interference. Herzog's proposal came as a suggestion as a way to solve a dispute over placement of a cell tower that would greatly improve coverage of the area. The irony, of course, is that tower dispute stems from restrictive zoning laws that regulate where companies can build place towers to begin with.
Herzog also raises all sorts of issues when he equates cell phone towers with telephone poles. Telephone poles can be easily erected on town right-of-way, i.e., alongside public roadways. Cell towers have to be placed more strategically and comprise a lot more than just a stick in the ground. Radio cabinets and controlled environment vaults are usually part of the package--hence the zoning battles in Lewisboro and elsewhere. Is Herzog implying he would declare cell service a utility in order to use eminent domain to force cellular tower placement on private property? He never goes as far to say so, but that's a real concern whenever a government official uses terms "utility" and "necessity" close together. While the idea is doubtful to ever come to fruition, Lewisboro recent past shows an affinity for regulatory takings, namely in the form of an overreaching wetlands law that allows the town to block modification or development of any piece of property where any standing water is found. .
If I lived there, I'd be a little discomfited.