Politics & Government

Kansas lawmaker accuses Wichita of backdoor dealings with cell tower developers

A state lawmaker is accusing Wichita city government of backdoor dealing with cell phone companies to make it easier for them to get approval to erect cell towers in local neighborhoods.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, watched in apparent frustration Tuesday as the City Council rewrote city policies for complying with a state law that sets a 150-day “shot clock” for considering cell-tower development plans.

Carmichael said the change “appear(s) to have been negotiated without any input from the citizens, but instead based on an agreement cut behind closed doors between the cell phone industry and the MAPC (Metropolitan Area Planning Commission).”

Carmichael represents the Riverside area of Wichita and has been active with constituents opposed to putting cell towers in their neighborhood.

Last year, the homeowners beat back a plan by T-Mobile and developer Rob Snyder to install a tower near 13th and Bitting. Now, they’re fighting against a plan to put the tower at an alternate site, near 18th and Woodland.

Planning Director Dale Miller said the change in procedure for tower permits is an attempt to address a state law that sets a 150-day deadline for considering cell towers. If the city doesn’t reject the proposal within that time period, the application is approved automatically.

Miller said the problem is that the city requires cell-tower developers to apply for their zoning changes and building permits at the same time, so the planning staff can have the full 150 days to evaluate both applications.

But the developers don’t like that, because it’s a waste of time and money to apply for a building permit if the zone change is rejected, Miller said.

The change made Tuesday will allow developers to waive the 150-day deadline so they can file their zone change first, then apply for a building permit later.

Carmichael said he would have liked to have spoken to the council about the policy change, but he never got the chance.

The issue was part of the “consent agenda,” a portion of the meeting where items deemed routine by city staff are approved by the council in a single vote with no discussion or debate.

“We absolutely need to do away with the practice of a consent agenda where the MAPC can hide major changes to how we deal with cell phone towers in Wichita,” Carmichael said. “This is exactly why people say you can’t fight City Hall. I’m here today to watch what happened, so when we (legislators) get back to Topeka, we can implement additional legislation to try to get the city’s attention that they can’t conduct their business behind closed doors.”

Public comments aren’t allowed on consent items except in rare cases when a council member pulls an item off the consent agenda and invites someone to come forward and speak on it.

On Tuesday, the council approved 32 items on the consent agenda. The cell-phone-tower policy was item 24.

Carmichael also said he and neighbors are frustrated because they were originally told the tower proposed for 18th and Woodland would be up for a vote Tuesday, but it got pushed back a week.

The council considered the tower proposal last month, but sent it back to the planning commission for reconsideration.

The commission, which voted 10-1 for approval the first time through, sent it back to the council on the second go-round by a vote of 10-2.

Editor’s note: The proposed cell phone tower would be at 18th and Woodland. One reference in an earlier version of this story contained an incorrect location.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.