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US Supreme Court issues opinion on “in writing” requirement of Federal Telecommunications Act

January 14th, 2015

Today the US Supreme Court issued its ruling concerning the “in writing” requirement of the Federal Telecommunications Act.  My previous post explaining the case, and the disagreement among the federal circuit courts, is here.

by Gary Taylor

T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia
United States Supreme Court, January 14, 2015

T-Mobile South submitted an application to build a 108-foot cell tower on a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood in the city of Roswell, Georgia. The company proposed a tower designed to look like a pine tree, branches and all, though this one would have stood at least twenty feet taller than surrounding trees. The city’s zoning department found that the application met the requirements of the relevant portions of the city code, and recommended approval of the application subject to several conditions. The city council then held a public hearing at which a T-Mobile South representative and members of the public spoke. Five of the six members of the city council then made statements, with four expressing concerns and one of those four formally moving to deny the application. That motion passed unanimously. Two days later, the city sent T-Mobile South a letter stating that its application had been denied. The letter did not provide reasons for the denial, but did explain how to obtain the minutes from the hearing. At that time, only “brief minutes” were available; the city council did not approve detailed minutes recounting the council members’ statements until its next meeting, twenty-six days later.

T-Mobile filed suit, alleging that the council’s decision violated the “in writing” requirement of the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) that says that a denial of an application for a wireless facility “shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.” The District Court agreed with T-Mobile.  On appeal the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  Noting that T-Mobile had received a denial letter and possessed a transcript of the hearing that it arranged to have recorded, the Eleventh Circuit found that this was sufficient to satisfy the “in writing” requirement.

The US Supreme Court first determined that “supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record” imposes upon local governments a requirement to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell towers.  It would be extremely difficult for a reviewing court to carry out its review of a local decision if localities were not obligated to state their reasons in writing. The Court went on to stress, however, “that these rea­sons need not be elaborate or even sophisticated, but rather…simply clear enough to enable judicial review.” In this regard, it is clear that Congress meant to use the phrase “substantial evidence” simply as an administrative “term of art” that describes how an administrative record is to be judged by a reviewing court.”  It is not meant to create a substantive standard that must be proved before denying applications.

Local governments are not required to provide their reasons in the denial notice itself, but may state those reasons with sufficient clarity in some other written record such as in detailed minutes. At the same time, the Court agreed with the Solicitor General’s brief that “the local government may be better served by including a separate statement containing its reasons….If the locality writes a short statement providing its reasons, the locality can likely avoid prolonging the litigation – and adding expense to the taxpayer, the companies, and the legal system – while the parties argue about exactly what the sometimes voluminous record means.”

The Court further determined, however, that because the FTA requires the recipient of a denial to seek judicial review within 30 days from the date of the denial, the denial and written reasons, if contained in separate documents, must be issued “essentially contemporaneously.”

Because an entity may not be able to make a considered decision whether to seek judicial re­view without knowing the reasons for the denial of its application, and because a court cannot review the denial without knowing the locality’s reasons, the locality must provide or make available its written reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial.
The Court observed that this rule ought not to unduly burden localities given the range of ways in which localities can provide their reasons.  Noting that the FCC “shot clock” declaratory ruling [discussed in the blog here] allows localities 90 days to act on applications to place new antennas on existing towers and 150 days to act on other siting applications, the Court suggested that “if a locality is not in a position to provide its reasons promptly, the locality can delay the issuance of its denial within this 90- or 150-day window, and instead release it along with its reasons once those reasons are ready to be provided. Only once the denial is issued would the 30-day commencement-of-suit clock begin.”

The Court concluded that it was acceptable for Roswell to provide its denial and written reasoning (in the form of detailed minutes) in separate documents, but did not issue these documents “essentially contemporaneously.”   As such, the city did not comply with the statutory obligations of the FTA.  The Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit to address the question of the appropriate remedies.

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FCC ruling Part IV: Shot clock clarification and other matters

December 4th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

While the bulk of the October 21 FCC ruling addressed Section 6409(a) which addresses collocation, modification, and replacement of wireless facilities, it also contained a section meant to clarify the 90- and 150-day presumptive deadlines (the “cell tower shot clock”) set forth by the FCC in a 2009 ruling, and a section to address industry concerns about local governments giving preference to siting wireless facilities on local government property.

Shot clock clarifications. Since 1996, Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) Section 332(c)(7)(B) has required local governments to act on applications for personal wireless service facilities within a “reasonable period of time.” The 2009 order set presumptive time limits based on what the FCC considers to be reasonable. Under the ruling, local governments have 90 days to act on requests for collocations (placing personal wireless service antennas on existing towers) and 150 days for all other applications. The ability of the FCC to set these rules governing local review was approved by the US Supreme Court in 2013.

The FCC clarified that the presumptively reasonable 90- and 150-day deadlines begin to run from the date of filing (with the exceptions noted below), the application. The deadlines may be extended only by a local government determination that the application is incomplete. The local government must inform the applicant of the incompleteness within 30 days of the initial filing, and must clearly and specifically delineate in writing the missing information. The clock will resume when the information is provided, but may be tolled again if the local government notifies the applicant within 10 days that the application remains incomplete. This notification cannot contain requests for new information beyond what was previously requested.

How does the 2009 ruling square with the October 21 ruling, particularly with regard to the deadlines for action on collocations (discussed in yesterday’s blogpost)? The FCC first pointed out that Section 332(c)(7) deals only with personal wireless service facilities (cell phone equipment), which is a much narrower focus than “wireless facilities” – the focus of Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act. The FCC also noted that some collocation applications under Section 332(c)(7) do not constitute “eligible facilities requests” under Section 6409(a). Recognizing that the provisions cover different (though overlapping) types of applications, the FCC declined to make any “changes or clarifications” to the 2009 ruling that would harmonize it with the October 21 ruling. Local governments are thus left to muddle through the distinctions in collocation applications to determine the appropriate timeline to which they must adhere.

DAS facilities. The FCC further clarified that the shot clock deadlines apply to Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) applications. DAS are small facilities that are increasingly being deployed to fill in coverage gaps and enhance capacity in congested areas (urban corridors, stadiums, hotels, convention centers, etc.)

Preference for deployment on government property. The wireless industry has expressed concerns over local governments giving preference to siting wireless facilities on local government property, arguing that it unreasonably discriminates among providers by limiting the siting flexibility of subsequent wireless entrants in a given area. The FCC recognized that some such local policies – those that “pressure” applicants to use local government property, coupled with regulations that make it nearly impossible to site facilities elsewhere – may be discriminatory as applied. Nevertheless, the FCC declined to find that such preference is discriminatory as a matter of course, and so refused to make a rule that municipal property preferences are per se unreasonable.

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FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part III

December 3rd, 2014

by Gary Taylor

Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act provides:

[A] state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.

This post will focus on the FCC’s guidelines for the review of applications for collocation, modification, and replacement of wireless facilities. Again, the FCC ruling generally sided with the wireless industry with its permitting and timeline guidance.

Applications. The FCC ruling does permit local governments to require an application to allow local officials to determine whether the proposed facility changes are covered by Section 6409(a). The FCC found that nothing in 6409(a) indicates that local governments must approve requests merely because applicants claim they are covered. The ruling, however, prevents local governments from requiring any documentation beyond that needed to determine whether the request is covered by Section 6409(a); local governments may not require documentation “proving the need for the proposed modification or presenting the business case for it.”

Timelines. The FCC also established a “specific and absolute timeframe” for processing of requests under Section 6409(a): 60 days, including review to determine whether an application is complete. If an application has not been approved within 60 days from the date of filing (with the exceptions noted below), the request will be deemed granted. The “deemed granted” becomes effective after the applicant notifies the local government in writing that the applicant is invoking this right.

The 60-day clock may be extended only (1) by mutual agreement between the local government and applicant, or (2) by a local government determination that the application is incomplete. Under (2), the local government must inform the applicant of the incompleteness within 30 days of the initial filing, and must clearly and specifically delineate in writing the missing information. The clock will resume when the information is provided, but may be tolled again if the local government notifies the applicant within 10 days that the application remains incomplete. This notification cannot contain requests for new information beyond what was previously requested.

Remedies. The FCC does not want to be the forum for resolving disputes over Section 6409(a), and therefore stated that “the most appropriate course for a party aggrieved by operation of Section 6409(a) is to seek relief from a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Non-application of 6409(a). Finally, the FCC determined that Section 6409(a) is meant to apply to local governments only when acting in their role as land use regulators. As such, Section 6409(a) does not apply when local governments are acting as property owners; when, for example, city or county governments are leasing space for the installation of wireless equipment on rooftops, water towers, power poles, or other government-owned property.

In the final blogpost (tomorrow) on this topic, I will cover the remaining sections of the FCC ruling that do not address Section 6409(a), but rather are meant to clarify the application of the shot clock that was affirmed by the US Supreme Court in 2013.

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FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part II

December 2nd, 2014

by Gary Taylor

Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act provides:

[A] state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.

In an attempt to clarify the ambiguities of Section 6409(a), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a new rule of interpretation on October 21, which takes effect 90 days from that date. Several key definitions were addressed in my previous post. This post continues with a review of still more definitions, specifically the meaning of “collocation,” “modification,” “replacement” and “substantial change.”

Collocation. Modification. The FCC interpreted “collocation” to mean “the mounting or installation of transmission equipment on an eligible support structure for the purpose of transmitting and/or receiving radio frequency signals for communications purposes.” This definition encompasses the initial mounting of equipment on a tower or base station. In crafting this definition the FCC rejected the argument of local governments that collocation should be limited to the mounting of equipment on structures that already have transmission equipment on them. “Modification” “includes collocation, removal, or replacement of an antenna or any other transmission equipment associated with the supporting structure.”

Replacement is interpreted to include only the transmission equipment, and not the structure on which the equipment is located, even under the condition that replacement would not substantially change the physical dimensions of the structure. The FCC acknowledged that replacement of an entire structure might affect local land use values differently than the addition, removal, or replacement of transmission equipment only.

Substantial change. In crafting guidance for what constitutes a “substantial change” to the physical dimensions of a tower or base station, the FCC chose to adopt an objective, measurable standard as opposed to allowing local governments to conduct more individualized, contextual consideration. In doing so, the FCC rejected the argument that in some instances a small physical change could lead to a substantial change in impact.  A “substantial change” is thus any of the following:

For towers outside the public right-of-way, a “substantial change”

  • increases the height of the tower by more than 10%, or by the height of one additional antenna array with separation from the nearest existing antenna not to exceed 20 feet, whichever is greater, or
  • protrudes from the edge of the tower more than 20 feet, or more than the width of the tower structure at the level of the appurtenance, which ever is greater.

For towers in the right-of-way, and all base stations, a “substantial change”

  • increases the height of the tower or base station by more than 10% or 10 feet, whichever is greater, or
  • protrudes from the edge of the structure more than 6 feet

Changes in height are to be measured from the original support structure in cases where the deployments are or will be separated horizontally. In other circumstances, changes in height are to be measured from the dimensions of the original tower or base station and all originally approved appurtenances, and any modifications approved prior to the passage of the Spectrum Act.  The changes are measured cumulatively; otherwise a series of small changes could add up to a cumulative change that exceeds the “substantial change” threshold.

For all towers and base stations, a “substantial change”

  • involves installation of more than the standard number of new equipment cabinets for the technology involved, but not to exceed four cabinets;
  • entails any excavation or deployment outside the current site of the tower or base station;
  • defeats the existing concealment elements of the tower or base station; or
  • does not comply with conditions associated with the prior approval of construction or modification of the tower or base station unless the non-compliance is due to any of the “substantial change” thresholds identified above.

State and local governments may continue to enforce and condition approval on compliance with generally applicable building, structural, electrical, and safety codes and with other laws codifying objective standards reasonably related to health and safety.

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FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part 1

November 30th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

Congress passed the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) in 1996 to facilitate the rapid deployment of wireless services across the country. One action for achieving that goal was to limit local zoning authority over personal wireless services facilities in some respects. It “prohibited” local governments from preventing services to a geographic area, and “unreasonably discriminating” among service providers. Aside from those limitations, it left essentially intact the ability of local governments to approve or deny the initial placement of wireless facilities, and the expansion or modification of those facilities.

In 2012, however, Congress moved further into the realm of local zoning control with the Spectrum Act, also commonly known as the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act provides:

[A] state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.

“Eligible facilities request” is defined in the Spectrum Act as any request for modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that involves (a) collocation of new transmission equipment; (b) removal of transmission equipment; or (c) replacement of transmission equipment. Other than this term, however, Congress did not provide definitions for any other words or phrases.

In an attempt to clarify the ambiguities of Section 6409(a) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a new rule of interpretation. The 155-page rule was adopted on October 21, and takes effect 90 days from that date. The new rule lays out several key definitions, most of which were written in a way that favors the wireless industry and limits local government authority.

Wireless services, wireless tower or base station, transmission equipment – General applicability. The FCC began by interpreting Section 6409(a) to apply broadly to equipment used “in connection with any FCC-authorized wireless communications service.” This is much broader than simply cell phone equipment. The FCC found that Congress has used the term “personal wireless services” in the past to refer to cell phone services, and Congress’s choice of “wireless services” instead established an intent to apply 6409(a) broadly to collocations on infrastructure that supports licensed or unlicensed, terrestrial or satellite, including commercial mobile, private mobile, broadcast, and public safety services, as well as fixed wireless services such as microwave backhaul or fixed broadband. This part of the new rule itself has significant potential implications for local planners and communities. Many communities will likely be required to update local ordinances and practices in order to comply. Most local ordinances either do not address these types of facilities at all, or address them in a way that will be inconsistent with the FCC ruling.

Transmission equipment. The FCC defined “transmission equipment” as “any equipment that facilitates transmission for any Commission-licensed or authorized wireless communication service, including, but not limited to, radio transceivers, antennas and other relevant equipment associated with and necessary to their operation, including coaxial or fiber-optic cable, and regular and backup power supply.” It includes “equipment used in any technological configuration associated with any Commission-authorized wireless transmission” such as those listed above.

Existing….The word “existing” is an important modifier that defines the applicability of the ruling. The ruling only applies to modifications to “existing” wireless towers and base stations. At what point in time does a tower become an “existing” tower? Any tower in place at the time of the ruling? Any tower, once built? The FCC determined that the term “existing requires that wireless towers or base stations have been reviewed and approved under the applicable local zoning or siting process or that the deployment of existing transmission equipment on the structure received another form of affirmative state or local regulatory approval.” If a tower or base station was built or installed without proper review it is not an “existing” tower, but if it was “lawfully constructed” (legally nonconforming) it is an “existing” tower.

Wireless tower. “Tower” is defined in the new rule as “any structure built for the sole or primary purpose of supporting any Commission-licensed or authorized antennas and their associated facilities.” The “sole or primary purpose” language narrows the applicability of the act to exclude structures similar to a tower, but broadens it to include all types of wireless transmission equipment identified above.

Base station. “Base station” includes “a structure that currently supports or houses an antenna, transceiver, or other associated equipment that constitutes part of a base station at the time of the application is filed.” It encompasses support equipment “in any technological configuration.” The FCC considers this definition “sufficiently flexible to encompass…future as well as current base station technologies and technological configurations, using either licensed or unlicensed spectrum.” This definition also rejects the position that “base station” refers only to the equipment compound associated with a tower and the equipment located on it; thus the FCC considers the broad array of structures necessary to the deployment of wireless communications infrastructure to fall under this definition, whether or not the structures are collocated with a tower.

In the next blogpost I will review the ruling’s definition of “substantial change,” and the mandatory timelines for processing siting applications.

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8th Circuit finally addresses “in writing” requirement of Federal Telecommunications Act

August 25th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

NE Colorado Cellular v. City of North Platte
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 22, 2014)

NE Colorado Cellular, dba Viaero Wireless (Viaero) filed an application to construct a cell tower in North Platte, Nebraska (City).  The application first went to the City’s planning commission.  the commission conducted a public hearing and received both live testimony and letters from property owners near the proposed tower site.  After the hearing,the commission issued a summary report recommending denial of the application because the tower would not be in harmony with the character of the area as required by the North Platte zoning code provisions concerning cell towers.  The commission provided this report to the city council.  The city council then conducted its own public hearing, where two people spoke in favor of the tower and twelve spoke in opposition.  The council voted 6-2 to deny the application.  The minutes of the council meeting included the finding that the proposed tower “does not meet the minimum standards stated in the [zoning ordinance]…based on the [finding] that the use is not in harmony with the character of the area and it is not the most appropriate use of the land as it is a historic neighborhood and the tower could decrease property values in the area.”

Viaero filed suit against the City, alleging that the decision was neither “in writing,” nor “supported by substantial evidence” as required by the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA).  The district court upheld the City’s decision, and Viaero appealed to the Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In writing.  The interpretation of the TCA’s “in writing” requirement up until this time has been an open question in the 8th Circuit.  The 1st, 2nd and 9th Circuits require that a decision (1) be separate from the written record; (2) describe the reasons for the denial; and (3) contain a sufficient explanation of the reasons for denial to allow a reviewing court to evaluate the evidence in the record that supports those reasons.  The 6th Circuit does not require that the decision and record be separate writings as long as the record permits the reviewing court to “focus with precision on the action that was taken and the reasons supporting such action.”  The 4th and 11th Circuits consider the burden on local governments to be even lighter than that imposed by the other interpretations.  The 4th Circuit has noted that “Congress knows how to demand findings and explanations” and has not done so in the TCA.  Similarly, the 11th Circuit has stated that the decision and the bases thereof can be found in the transcript of the hearing and the minutes of the meeting in which the hearing was held; neither a separate written document, nor specific findings of fact are required.**

The 8th Circuit was persuaded that the 4th and 11th Circuits articulated the better rule.  The Court did not find anywhere in the text of the TCA where the denial and the written record be separate documents.  Likewise, the language of the TCA does not require that the written denial state findings of fact or the reasons for the denial.  “Congress may require an agency or board to state its findings.  Congress did not do so here.”

Supported by substantial evidence.  The Court began by noting that “the TCA’s ‘substantial evidence’ requirement does not impose substantive standards on local governments. Rather, it requires a reviewing court to determine whether the local authority’s decision comports with applicable local law….It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”  The city’s ordinance requires that a tower “shall be in harmony with the character of the area and the most appropriate use of the land” in order to be approved.  The Court found that the city council had before it the testimony of a dozen residents that the proposed tower would be an “eyesore,” would be inappropriate for the neighborhood, and would not be harmonious with the neighborhood.  This, the Court concluded, was enough for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion that the proposed tower would would not be in harmony with the neighborhood.


**Note:  The US Supreme Court has accepted the case of T-Mobile South, LLC. v. City of Roswell, 731 F.3d 1213 (11th Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 134 S.Ct. 2136 (2014) to resolve these differing interpretations.

 

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US Supreme Court validates FCC’s shot clock ruling for local decisions on cell tower permits

May 20th, 2013

by Gary Taylor

City of Arlington, Texas v. Federal Communications Commission
(U.S. Supreme Court, May 20, 2013)

This case was previously discussed in this blog here.  On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion, which effectively validates the FCC’s shot clock declaratory ruling.  A summary of the Court’s opinion:

The Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) requires state or local governments to act on siting applications for wireless facilities “within a reasonable period of time after the request is duly filed.” Relying on its broad authority to implement the FTA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Declaratory Ruling (the shot clock) concluding that the phrase “reasonable period of time” is presumptively (but rebuttably) 90 days to process an application to place a new antenna on an existing tower and 150 days to process all other applications. The cities of Arlington and San Antonio, Texas, argued that the Commission lacked authority to interpret the language “within a reasonable period of time” because doing so amounted to determining the jurisdictional limits of its own authority – a task exclusively within the province of Congeress. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals applied precedent from the case of Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, to that question. Finding the statute ambiguous, it upheld as a permissible construction of the statute the FCC’s view that the FTA’s broad grant of regulatory authority empowered it to adopt the Declaratory Ruling.

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit.  Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia found no distinction between an agency’s “jurisdictional” and “nonjurisdictional” interpretations. When a court reviews an agency’s interpretation of a statute it administers, the question is always, simply, whether the agency has stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority. The “jurisdictional-nonjurisdictional” line is meaningful in the judicial context because Congress has the power to tell the courts what classes of cases they may decide—that is, to define their jurisdiction—but not to prescribe how they decide those cases. For agencies charged with administering congressional statutes, however, both their power to act and how they are to act is authoritatively prescribed by Congress, so that when they act improperly, no less than when they act beyond their jurisdiction, what they do is beyond their authority and can be struck down by a court.  Under Chevron, a reviewing court must first ask whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue; if so, the court must give effect to Congress’ unambiguously expressed intent. If, however the statute is silent or ambiguous, the court must defer to the administering agency’s construction of the statute so long as it is permissible. Because the question is always whether the agency has gone beyond what Congress has permitted it to do, there is no principled basis for carving out an arbitrary subset of “jurisdictional” questions from the Chevron framework.

The Court rejected Arlington’s contention that Chevron deference is not appropriate here because the FCC asserted jurisdiction over matters of traditional state and local concern. The case does not implicate any notion of federalism: The statute explicitly supplants state authority, so the question is simply whether a federal agency or federal courts will draw the lines to which the States must hew.

A general conferral of rulemaking authority validates rules for all the matters the agency is charged with administering. In this case, the preconditions to deference under Chevron are satisfied because Congress has unambiguously vested the FCC with general authority to administer the Communications Act through rulemaking and adjudication, and the agency’s interpretation of “reasonable period of time” at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.

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Supreme Court to address FCC “shot clock” for local governments on cell tower applications (sort of)

November 21st, 2012

Last month the US Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases concerning the FCC’s “shot clock” (previous blogposts on the shot clock are found here) which set time limits on local governments for deciding on zoning requests for cell towers: 90 days for collocations (placing antennas on existing towers) and 150 for all other applications.  Actually the cases don’t directly address the shot clock question.  As you know, law is complicated!

The cases are similar so only one will be explained here.  In Arlington v. FCC the city of Arlington, Texas filed suit claiming that the FCC could not set the shot clock time limits because the FCC cannot determine its own power under the Federal Communications Act. When Congress passed the Act, it granted a certain amount of power to the FCC to enforce and define the rules under the Act, but the city of Arlington argued that setting these specific time limits went too far, because it ran contrary to the provision in the Telecommunications Act that leaves the zoning permitting process in the hands of the local government.

Here is the complicated part.  The case went before the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The FCC argued that under the long-standing Chevron doctrine (arising from the case of Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council) courts must always defer to an agency’s interpretation of a law so long as the interpretation is reasonable and “permissible.” The city of Arlington countered that the Supreme Court has never determined whether the Chevron doctrine applies to situations where the agency is venturing to define the reach of its own jurisdiction under a particular law. The Fifth Circuit sided with the FCC and deferred to the agency’s interpretation that the FCC had the authority to set time limits on local governments (having the effect of affirming the declaratory ruling creating the shot clock). Arlington appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case exclusively to answer whether the Chevron doctrine applies in this situation. In other words, the Supreme Court is not deciding on the legality of the shot clock itself. It is deciding whether a federal court must defer to the FCC’s interpretation that the FCC has the authority to institute the shot clock.  If the Court determines that courts must give deference to the agency’s interpretation of the Telecommunications Act on this issue it will, in effect, preclude this and future challenges.

Oral arguments are scheduled for January 16.

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6th Circuit provides good overview of the state of cell tower regulation in the federal courts on its way to its own decison

August 27th, 2012

by Gary Taylor

T-Mobile Central v. West Bloomfield Charter Township
(Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, August 21, 2012.)

T-Mobile proposed to build a cellular tower in an area of West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, that had a gap in coverage. The facility contained an existing 50-foot pole, which T-Mobile wanted to replace with a 90-foot pole disguised to look like a pine tree with antennas fashioned as branches (a monopine).  The site was not located within the two cellular tower overlay zones identified on the Township’s zoning map where such facilities are permitted by right.  T-Mobile thus sought a special use permit.  At the hearing, T-Mobile presented testimony and evidence demonstrating its need to fill a gap in coverage, justification for the selection of that site and the height of the pole, an explanation of how the facility would provide for collocating equipment for other cellular carriers, and a representation that the facility would have a minimal visual impact. Several members of the public  spoke in opposition to granting the special land use. The areas to the north, east, and west of the proposed site were residential subdivisions, and there was a daycare center to the south. At the hearing, the Township Planning Commission passed a motion to recommend to the Board of Trustees of the Township that T-Mobile’s application should be denied.  At the Trustees’ hearing T-Mobile contended that 90 feet would be the minimum height necessary to collocate two other carriers.  More people spoke in opposition.  The Township denied T-Mobile’s application. T-Mobile brought suit, alleging that the denial of the application violated the Telecommunications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 332 et seq. The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of T-Mobile, and the Township appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) provides: “Any decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.”  The Court of Appeals found the relevant question to be “substantial evidence of what?”  In other words, if there is a denial of an application to build a wireless facility, what must the substantial evidence in the record show in order to avoid a violation of the federal code? The Court chose to follow a decision from the 9th Circuit, stating that this standard “requires a determination whether the zoning decision at issue is supported by substantial evidence in the context of applicable state and local law.” The Court “may not overturn the Board’s decision on ‘substantial evidence’ grounds if that decision is authorized by applicable local regulations and supported by a reasonable amount of evidence.”  Nonetheless, the 6th Circuit proceeded to find that none of the five reasons for denial stated by the Board of Trustees were supported by substantial evidence; rather, each was simply an expression of NIMBYism or lay opinion contradicted by expert opinion.

47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(i)(II),  provides that “[t]he regulation of the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities by any State or local government or instrumentality thereof shall not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services.”  Does the denial of a single application from T-Mobile constitute an effective prohibition? This was a question of first impression for the 6th Circuit.  It again looked to other federal circuit courts for guidance.  The 4th Circuit has held that only a general, blanket ban on the construction of all new wireless facilities would constitute an impermissible prohibition of wireless services; however, the large majority of circuits have rejected this approach.  The 6th Circuit rejected it as well, stating that such a reading makes the “effective prohibition” language meaningless if an it can only be triggered by an actual ban.  The 6th Circuit chose instead to follow the two-part test of the 9th Circuit: there must be (1) a showing of a ‘significant gap’ in service coverage and (2) some inquiry into the feasibility of alternative facilities or site locations.”

As for the first part of this test – whether whether the “significant gap” in service focuses on the coverage of the applicant provider (T-Mobile in this case) or whether service by any other provider (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) is sufficient – the 6th Circuit again found a split among federal circuit courts.  The 2nd,  3rd and 4th Circuits have held that no “significant gap” exists if any “one provider” is able to serve the gap area in question. On the other hand, the 1st and 9th Circuits have rejected the “one provider” rule and adopted a standard that considers whether “a provider is prevented from filling a significant gap in its own service coverage.  In 2009, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling that effectively supported the approach of the First and Ninth Circuits.  The 6th Circuit chose to follow the FCC’s lead.  Finding that T-Mobile’s position that it suffered a significant gap in coverage to be well-supported by documentary evidence and testimony from RF engineers,  it concluded that the denial of T-Mobile’s application “prevented [T-Mobile] from filling a significant gap in its own service coverage.”

As for the second part of the test (alternative facilities) The 2nd, 3rd and 9th Circuits require the provider to show that ‘‘the manner in which it proposes to fill the significant gap in service is the least intrusive on the values that the denial sought to serve.’’  The 1st and 7th Circuits, by contrast, require a showing that there are ‘‘no alternative sites which would solve the problem.’’  The 6th Circuit chose to fall in line with the 2nd, 3rd and 9th “It is considerably more flexible than the ‘no viable alternatives’ standard, as [under the other standard] a carrier could endlessly have to search for different, marginally better alternatives. Indeed, in this case the Township would have had T-Mobile search for alternatives indefinitely.”  The Court found that T-Mobile satisfied its burden under the “least intrusive” standard, having investigated a number of other specific options but determining they would have been “significantly more intrusive to the values of the community.”

Having determined that the Township’s decision had the “the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services,” thus violating 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(i)(II), the 6th Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.

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FCC refuses to reconsider cell tower shot clock ruling

November 1st, 2010

by Gary Taylor

On November 18, 2009 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a declaratory ruling that established a “shot clock” for local zoning authorities acting on wireless facilities siting applications. Under the ruling, local governments have 90 days to act on requests for collocations (placing antennas on existing towers) and 150 for all other applications. Previous blogposts that explain the FCC ruling in greater detail can be found here.

On December 17, 2009 a Petition requesting reconsideration of the rules was filed with the FCC by the American Planning Association, National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and others; however, on August 4, 2010 the FCC denied the Petition for Reconsideration, leaving the November 2009 order unchanged.  The August 4 order can be accessed here.

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