A plan by telecom infrastructure firm Mobilitie for a 120-foot tower on county right of way at the busy College Road and Craft Road intersection, and possibly two other sites, generated some negative signals from DeSoto Supervisors.
The board authorized counsel Tony Nowak to look into legal questions posed by Mobilitie's proposal under a certificate from the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which Mobilitie says supercedes the county's planning and zoning procedures. Nowak said he expected to have a report ready for the panel's Nov. 7 meeting.
The board on Monday was welcoming to economic development prospects, approving business incentives for three firms coming to DeSoto and bringing more than 230 jobs: AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Remington Arms and DNJ Engine Components.
"I just don't think it's worth the paper it's written on," said Supervisor Lee Caldwell of Nesbit of what Mobilitie network real estate specialist Brett Smith described as a "certificate of need" from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Caldwell and other board members noted that the PSC doesn't have statutory authority to regulate wireless communications.
Smith said the PSC action was sought so Mobilitie could proceed with the rights and entitlements of a "public utility," but Caldwell said of that, "You call yourself a 'public utility,' but you're really just an antenna company" that sells space to cellular service providers. She added, "I don't think you have a legal right to come here."
Supervisor Mark Gardner cited articles in business journals from 2012 that showed Mobilitie, based on Newport Beach, Calif., selling 2,300 towers in a portfolio sale to raise $1.1 billion for new wireless infrastructure.
"Isn't that interesting?" Gardner said of the transaction. He asked Smith, from Mobilitie's Atlanta office, if Mobilitie aims "to get all these sites (including DeSoto) and sell them."
Gardner also said Mobilitie got off to "a bad start" in DeSoto by advising county officials some weeks ago that with the PSC certificate, the company's tower plan required no local approvals and therefore couldn't be challenged.
Supervisor Michael Lee of Hernando said it looked to him that Mobilitie, a private, for-profit company, was trying to piggyback on the taxpayers by using public right of way to place towers. He said he feared this plan was opening the door wide to other firms claiming "public needs" of all sorts.
Sheriff Bill Rasco issued safety concerns about the tall tower's placement so close to traffic in a busy intersection; and Caldwell said that with the area destined to grow, the tower could very well depress property values when time came for nearby property owners to sell.
Smith apologized for the way the proposal was introduced, and said Mobilitie was ready "to work with the county" on tower placement matters, but that the company's own study showed desirability of a tower at College and Craft to "make the pipeline bigger" for cellular providers and improve service. He said Mobilitie expects to pay appropriate fees, and acknowledged that Mobilitie itself is not a broadband or cellular provider.
The need is there for cellular boosts, said Smith. Mobilitie points to national data trends indicating mobile data traffic will grow six-fold from 2015 to 2020, a compound annual growth rate of 42 percent.
Sought for DeSoto is a slim-line, galvanized steel "back-haul transport pole" that could serve as many as four major providers, said Smith, and the other two poles would tie in with it.
Noting the safety as well as beautification issues, Caldwell said, "Having all these poles you can zip line from one to another, that's a concern."
Smith said Mobilitie would provide more information to the board, and Supervisor Bill Russell of Walls, a telephone company retiree, said he welcomed getting questions answered. "There's so much new technology since I retired, I don't understand it all," he said. "We want to improve service, but we also want to protect people and the environment."
Nowak said he'll look into state and federal law as it applies to cell towers, jurisdiction and certifications. He said that while the PSC issues "certificates of public need and convenience," it does not have wireless regulatory power.
Smith said he's hopeful "it will all be worked out" with the county and towers from Mobilitie.
As to the business incentives, Jim Flanagan, president and chief executive of the DeSoto Economic Development Council, said, "We're proud to have three new companies coming in."
AmerisourceBergen, with a distribution center at 12577 Stateline Rd. in Olive Branch, received a free port warehouse incentive, as did Remington Arms, operating a hub at 366 Stateline in Southaven.
Brent Cook, AmerisourceBergen director of operations, said the distributor of prescription and nonprescription pharmaceuticals and other "drug store sundries" was filling 144 jobs at the Olive Branch facility.
"We had more than 300 applicants after our first posting," said Cook. "This is a very exciting time for us."
Remington will be employing 60 at its worldwide hub for firearms, ammo and accessories in Southaven.
DNJ, a wholesaler and distributor of auto parts at 10285 Stateline in Olive Branch, received real and personal property and free port warehouse incentives. The firm plans to employ 27 to 30 people in the next two years.
"We chose to move to Olive Branch rather than 'that place across the line,'" said Paul Akin, national sales manager. DNJ occupies a 100,000-square-foot building, formerly that of TREX.
"We outgrew our home in Los Angeles and we needed something larger, and with the help of Jim (Flanagan) we found it," said Akin, who was born and spent his young boyhood in North Little Rock, Ark.
"We're always glad to see these business expansions and relocations," said Supervisor Caldwell. "We invest in these companies and they invest in the county, and we've had great success."
Henry Bailey is Contributing Writer and Copy Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He can be contacted at email@example.com and at 662-429-6397, Ext. 241.