Aspen’s current streetlights vary in height between 11 and 19 feet. New small cell wireless design guidelines encourage cellular companies to use existing streetlamp locations, allowing replacement towers up to 25 feet.

Aspen city staff are working on aesthetic regulations for small cell wireless facilities, even as cell carriers are putting in their applications to build out 5G capabilities.

The FCC has tied the hands of local governments, which must allow new towers in public rights of way, and cannot consider health or environmental effects of the technology in their codes. What remains is the ability to create a set of design standards for what the wireless towers will look like.

In a work session last night, staff asked city council to weigh in on proposed design parameters regarding everything from height, width and color of the wireless facilities, to ways to consolidate and disguise the new infrastructure.

At the crux of the conversation is the tradeoff between keeping new poles smaller and shorter, or allowing larger infrastructure to be built in Aspen, with the theory that wireless carriers could double up on the larger poles, meaning less total new development.

The guidelines are being written to encourage cellular companies to build new small cell facilities in place of existing streetlights. A company would apply for an application and, if approved, remove the current streetlight and replace it with a cell tower that fits within the design guidelines, at their own expense.

The city is proposing a requirement that all the radios, wires and antennas that compose the small cell unit be enclosed in the pole and out of sight from passersby. Paul Shultz, the city’s director of information technology, said that means the current lamps used to light Aspen sidewalks cannot act as the cell tower.

“There is just not room to support the amount of infrastructure,” Shultz said. “It’s just not possible to reuse these poles”

The design team is proposing that the replacement poles cannot be any higher than 25 feet in the air. That number is 14 feet higher than Aspen’s shortest existing streetlamps, but shorter than the 50-foot limit the wireless industry would like to see.

Ben Anderson, a planner with the community development department, told city council that as companies try to build out faster networks, Aspen might see a replacement of one out of every five to 10 streetlights in town.

The design team has met with Verizon and AT&T as well as a neutral host company that could be tasked with building the towers, and said the companies are trying to coax the city into raising the height regulation.

“I will tell you that this is one of the topics that the wireless industry is perhaps going to be pushing back most on,” Anderson said. ”Their argument is, the taller the tower, the fewer of these facilities we are going to eventually need.”

What is actually needed to ensure 5G technology is robust is untested in most of the world. Anderson said there are a number of claims made by the industry about their infrastructure needs that have been hard to track down.

“We are still trying to verify that kind of information and understand that,” he told council. “But right now, based on everything the staff understands, based on what we think about height in this town, and the visual impacts of things, we feel pretty committed to this topic.”

The proposed design guidelines would limit any one carrier from having two poles closer than 600 feet together. The facilities would be painted a greenish gray to match existing streetlamps, but would not match Aspen’s ornate housing for bulbs. Instead, they would have a downward facing LED light that would color-match existing lighting downtown. Concurrently, the community development department has prioritized outdoor lighting regulation updates in its 2020 work plan.

Legally the city can’t restrict new cell towers in entire city zones, but as the guidelines are written, there are certain areas where the city is trying to ban the poles from going up. Those include the downtown pedestrian malls, the foreground of protected mountain viewplanes, or adjacent to open space paracels and the street-facing façade of Aspen’s designated, iconic properties.

“There are not a lot of places in the country that are being as restrictive as we are,” Anderson told council. “We are trying to be as restrictive as possible within the bounds of the law.”

And, while no municipality is allowed to regulate small cell facilities based on health concerns, Aspen is proposing required testing of radio frequency exposure emanating from each individual facility. Prior to installation, companies will have to provide the predicted Nonionizing Electromagnetic Radiation measurements of each cell, as well as provide annual test results of the measurements. The towers could not exceed the maximum permissible exposure to the radio waves as per FCC guidelines.

Council praised the design team’s work on the guidelines and supported the amendments to the land use code that would be required to implement the new standards. The team will present updates to council again in a few weeks, with final approval set for mid-March.

“This is as important for the city of Aspen as the original streetlights are,” said Councilmember Rachel Richards.

Even though applications for small cell facilities have already been submitted, Mayor Torre said Aspen has the ability to keep ahead of the burgeoning technology and preserve what it can of local character and aesthetics.

“What I am trying to do is maintain the character and feel of this community, in light of what is mostly definitely 21st century equipment that is coming on line,” Torre said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.