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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.

cell towers, Telecommunications towers, United States Supreme Court , , ,

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.

cell towers, Federal courts , ,

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.

cell towers, Telecommunications towers , , ,

More on FCC’s shot-clock ruling on cell tower decisions

December 14th, 2009

by Gary Taylor

The International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA) has assembled materials addressing the FCC’s recent ruling placing time limits on a city/county acting on a cell tower application (I previously blogged on the ruling itself – available here).  The Varnum law firm has developed a presentation on the ruling, what it means for local governments, and strategies for compliance, that is available here.  In addition, the firm of Miller and Van Eaton has drafted a memorandum – available here – that also discusses the possible consequences of the ruling.

cell towers, Federal legislation, Telecommunications towers , , ,

Council is proper party in claim of illegality of zoning amendment

October 19th, 2009

by Gary Taylor

Rude v. City of Mapleton Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, May 29, 2009)

Claim that zoning amendment is inconsistent with comprehensive plan must be brought against city council within 30 days of council decision.

In 2006 Long Lines Wireless applied for a special use permit to construct a cell tower on land it intended to purchase in Mapleton.  A public hearing was held by the Mapleton board of adjustment, at which Ronald Rude voiced objections, stating that the city zoning ordinance did not permit cell towers.  Long Lines withdrew its application.  The planning and zoning commission later recommended text changes to the ordinance to accommodate cell towers, and in June 2007 the city council adopted those changes.  Long Lines resubmitted its application and in November 2007 the board of adjustment issued a special use permit.  Long Lines completed construction of its tower in December 2007.  In the same month, Rude filed a writ of certiorari claiming the board of adjustment’s actions in granting the special use permit were illegal.  The district court dismissed the claim, and Rude appealed.

Rude raised two objections: (1) that the zoning amendments were adopted by the city council without consideration of the city’s comprehensive plan, and (2) that the special use permit granted Long Lines permission to violate the setback and frontage provisions of the zoning ordinance.

The Court of Appeals dispensed with Rude’s first claim by noting that Rude did not raise the issue at the special use permit hearing before the board of adjustment.  “An issue must first be presented to the agency [in this case, the board of adjustment] in order to be preserved for appellate review.”  The court also noted that the lawsuit was brought against the board of adjustment, not the city council.  The council was the legislative body that amended the ordinance.  To attack the legality of the ordinance it would have been necessary for Rude to file his action within 30 days of the city council’s adoption of the zoning ordinance amendments.

On the second claim, the Court of Appeals found that Rude was misinterpreting the city’s zoning ordinance with regard to the application of the setback regulations.  The amendments adopted in June 2007 were specifically applicable to cell towers, and the setback provisions in those amendments clearly supplanted those to be applied to other uses.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision in favor of the city.

Conditional Uses/Special Uses, Iowa Court of Appeals, Procedural Issues, Telecommunications towers, Zoning amendments , , , , ,