The City of Big Rapids is moving to protect itself from a public right-of-way scam that is happening across the country and in Big Rapids. Private real estate development companies portraying themselves as public utilities are approaching municipalities with thinly disguised permit applications to put facilities in the right-of-way. They then build a facility, and lease or sell it to telecommunications companies. City Attorney Eric Williams says this sometimes ends up with 120 foot towers in a city's right-of-way.
“This is basically a private land grab under the guise of going in as a public utility when they're not public utilities.”
Some companies are saying it is much cheaper for the telecommunications companies to put their towers in the public right-of-way at little or no charge rather than lease space on private water towers or buildings. However, Williams notes the Michigan Constitution says use of rights-of-way must be obtained through consent and a franchise with the local municipality.
“What going on now is companies who suggest they're public utilities but really aren't are trying to do this without a franchise and without really getting consent.”
So far, two letters have been sent to the City of Big Rapids by companies wanting to put 120 foot towers in the city's right-of-way. They've been told no and, Williams notes, telecommunications providers can use space on city water towers, but they would have to lease it rather than claiming to be a public utility and basically getting to use the city streets and other rights-of-way for free.
“For city staff I think it would help if I were to give you [the City Commission] some proposed code language, city code language, that says point blank, similar to what's in the constitution, no you can't just build in the city right-of-way, you have to get a permit, you have to get a franchise.”
He says that would make it easier to respond to requests similar to one the city has gotten that basically said:
“Looks like there's no permit requirements for regulation so we've just asked for one and if we're right we're going to build it and if we're wrong it's up to you to tell us not to.”
City Commission has asked Williams to draft an amendment for the city building code that reflects the stance of the Michigan Consitution.