Supreme Court Wireless Decision Limits Municipal Zoning Actions
NEWS ANALYSIS: T-Mobile comes out the winner in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that puts limits on municipal zoning actions and boosts fortunes for wireless firms.The U.S. Supreme Court has leveled a blow to state and local governments that attempt to limit the expansion of wireless companies because they don't like their towers. The decision upholds the requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires that companies whose zoning applications for cell towers are denied be provided with the reasons in writing in a timely fashion. The decision, T-Mobile South vs. City of Roswell, Ga., sends T-Mobile's appeal of a zoning decision denying permission to build a cell tower back to the circuit court. The lower court will be required to reconsider its decision now that the Supreme Court has overturned it. In turn, that means T-Mobile will have a chance for judicial review of the reasons for the denial. This is important because zoning approvals are a significant problem for wireless companies. Normally, a tower requires that the local zoning board approve the construction, and it's not at all uncommon for those zoning boards to deny approval for a variety of reasons that are contrary to the law. Making it clear that the reasons for denial must be provided in writing and in a timely manner means that wireless companies have the opportunity to appeal those decisions. The Telecommunications Act limits the reasons zoning boards or other municipal or state bodies can deny the installation of a cell tower. For example, towers can't be denied for health reasons if the radios installed on them meet FCC requirements. Likewise, they can't be blocked for other reasons, including esthetics. In addition, if the governmental body does decide to deny permission to build a tower, they must provide reasons with specific evidence as to why.
"It's good news for wireless carriers and wireless infrastructure," said attorney Joseph Palmore, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, where he's co-chair of the firm's Supreme Court and Appellate group. "The court understood that the reason for the requirement is that the courts need something to review when denials are challenged." He said that the requirement for written reasons provides a reasonable check on the actions of those local boards.