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Third and final installment: Iowa’s impending wireless facilities siting legislation

June 10th, 2015

One of the goals of HF655 was to fill in “gaps” in the FCC rules when it comes to local regulation of the placement of new towers.  The first two posts on this blog essentially addressed those circumstances.  Another goal of the bill was to create a set of rules at the state level (which is then applied locally) that is identical to the FCC rules at the federal level.  Several sections of HF655 are thus simply a state codification of the shot clock rules (2009 FCC ruling), and a state codification of the rules from the Spectrum Act (2014 FCC ruling) that streamline approval of activities that do not constitute a “substantial change.”  The bill therefore

  • Sets forth definitions for “base station,” “collocation,” “eligible facilities request,” existing tower,” “substantial change,” “tower,” “transmission equipment,” “wireless support structure” that mirror those in the prior two FCC rulings.
  • Requires local governments to act on new tower applications within 150 days of receiving a complete application for construction, consistent with the 2009 FCC ruling.
  • Requires local governments to act within 90 days of receiving a complete application for “initial placement or installation of transmission equipment on wireless support structures, a modification of an existing tower or existing base station that constitutes a substantial change, or a request for construction or placement of transmission equipment that does not constitute an eligible facilities request,” consistent with both the 2009 and 2014 FCC rulings.

All records, documents, and electronic data submitted to the local government as part of the application process are treated as information subject to the Open Records Act (Iowa Code Chapter 22).  Presumably this provision was acceptable to the industry because the bill put significant limitations on the types of information that the local government could request from the applicant in the first place.

cell towers, Iowa legislation ,

Part II: Iowa’s impending wireless facilities siting legislation

June 9th, 2015
HF655 contains a section governing the contractual relationship between a local government and wireless facilities provider when the provider leases public land for such facilities.
  • The local government must offer the market rate value for use of that land.
  • The term of the lease shall be for at least twenty years.
  • If the local government and the provider cannot agree on the market rate for the lease, the appraisals of a three-person panel of appraisers shall determine the market rate. Each party will appoint one appraiser and the two appointed appraisers shall select a third appraiser. Each party shall bear the cost of its own appointed appraiser and equally share the cost of the third appraiser.
  • Each appraiser shall then independently appraise the appropriate market rate for lease of the land. The market rate shall then be set at the median value between the highest and lowest market rates determined by the three independent appraisers. However, if the median between the appraisals of the appraisers appointed by each party is greater than or less than ten percent of the appraisal of the appraiser selected by the two appraisers, then the appraisal of the appraiser selected by the two appraisers shall determine the rate for the lease.
  • The local government can then  approve or reject the lease rate as determined by the appraisal process within fifteen days following completion and receipt of the appraisals. Failure to reject the lease rate within fifteen days constitutes approval of the lease rate.
A local government shall not mandate, require, or regulate the installation, location, or use of transmission equipment on a utility pole.
HF655 dos not prohibit an airport or local government from administering and enforcing airport zoning under Iowa Code Chapter 329.
It does not infringe upon the jurisdiction of an historic preservation commission or local government to approve or deny applications for proposed alterations to exterior features within an historic preservation district, or on local historic landmarks.

cell towers, Iowa legislation ,

First installment: Iowa’s impending wireless siting rules

June 8th, 2015

The Iowa Legislature has sent a bill to the Governor that will create a set of uniform rules for local governments as they regulate the placement and alteration of  wireless facilities (cell towers and other types of wireless facilities).  HF655 is meant to work in harmony with previously adopted FCC rules, such as the shot-clock rule (here and here) and the rules implementing the Spectrum Act.   In a nutshell, HF655 presents a list of 13 things that a local government cannot do when presented an application for a wireless facility.  Straight from the bill, the list of 13 things that a local government cannot do:

  1. Require an applicant to submit information about, or evaluate an applicant’s business decisions with respect to, the applicant’s designed service, customer demand for service, or quality of the applicant’s service to or from a particular area or site.
  2. a. Evaluate an application based on the availability of other potential locations for the placement or construction of a tower or transmission equipment. b. Require the applicant to establish other options for collocation instead of the construction of a new tower or modification of an existing tower or existing base station that constitutes a substantial change to an existing tower or existing base station. c. Notwithstanding paragraph “b” , an authority may require an applicant applying for the construction of a new tower to state in its application that it conducted an analysis of available collocation opportunities on existing towers or existing base stations within the same search ring defined by the applicant solely for the purpose of confirming that the applicant undertook such analysis.
  3. Dictate the type of transmission equipment or technology to be used by the applicant or discriminate between different types of infrastructure or technology.
  4. a. Require the removal of existing towers, base stations, or transmission equipment, wherever located, as a condition to approval of an application. b. Notwithstanding paragraph “a” , the authority may adopt reasonable rules regarding removal of abandoned towers or transmission equipment.
  5. Impose environmental testing, sampling, or monitoring requirements, or other compliance measures, for radio frequency emissions from transmission equipment that are categorically excluded under the federal communications commission’s rules for radio frequency emissions pursuant to 47 C.F.R. §1.1307(b)(1). 
  6. Establish or enforce regulations or procedures for radio frequency signal strength or the adequacy of service quality.
  7. Reject an application, in whole or in part, based on perceived or alleged environmental effects of radio frequency emissions, as provided in 47 U.S.C. §332(c)(7)(B)(iv). 
  8. Prohibit the placement of emergency power systems that comply with federal and state environmental requirements. 
  9. Charge an application fee, consulting fee, or other fee associated with the submission, review, processing, or approval of an application that is not required for similar types of commercial development within the authority’s jurisdiction. Fees imposed by an authority or by a third-party entity providing review or technical consultation to the authority shall be based on actual, direct, and reasonable administrative costs incurred for the review, processing, and approval of an application. In no case shall total charges and fees exceed five hundred dollars for an eligible facilities request or three thousand dollars for an application for a new tower, for the initial placement or installation of transmission equipment on a wireless support structure, for a modification of an existing tower or existing base station that constitutes a substantial change to an existing tower or base station, or anyother application to construct or place transmission equipment that does not constitute an eligible facilities request. An authority or any third-party entity shall not include within its charges any travel expenses incurred in the review of an application, and an applicant shall not be required to pay or reimburse an authority for consultant or other third-party fees based on a contingency or result-based arrangement. 
  10. Impose surety requirements, including bonds, escrow deposits, letters of credit, or any other type of financial surety, to ensure that abandoned or unused towers or transmission equipment can be removed unless the authority imposes similar requirements on other applicants for other types of commercial development or land uses. If surety requirements are imposed, the requirements must be competitively neutral, nondiscriminatory, reasonable in amount, and commensurate with the historical record for local facilities and structures that are abandoned. 
  11. Condition the approval of an application on the applicant’s agreement to provide space on or near the tower, base station, or wireless support structure for authority or local governmental or nongovernmental services at less than the market rate for such space or to provide other services via the structure or facilities at less than the market rate for such services. 
  12. Limit the duration of the approval of an application, except that construction of the approved structure or facilities shall be commenced within two years of final approval, including the disposition of any appeals, and diligently pursued to completion. 
  13. Discriminate on the basis of the ownership, including ownership by the authority, of any property, structure, or tower when promulgating rules or procedures for siting wireless facilities or for evaluating applications.

Tomorrow’s post will look at other parts of HF655.

cell towers, Iowa legislation ,

Failure to make minutes available “essentially contemporaneously” with the decision under Federal Telecommunications Act was harmless error

May 14th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Smith Communications, LLC v. Washington County, Arkansas
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, May 12, 2015

In February 2013 Smith Communications applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) to build a 300-foot-tall cell tower in Washington County, Arkansas.  The property was zoned “Agriculture/Single-Family Residential,” and homes are located within 1/4-mile of the site.  The criteria for granting a CUP are those general considerations typical for most zoning codes (compatibility with surrounding area, no endangerment to public health or safety, not injurious to use and enjoyment of nearby properties, etc.). The Washington County Planning Board approved the CUP, but nearby residents appealed the decision to the Washington County Quorum Court [Note: apparently a body akin to a Zoning Board of Adjustment].  The Quorum Court met twice – June 4 and June 24, 2013 – and held extensive hearings. The residents in attendance focused on safety, nearby property values, the tower’s “fit” with the surrounding area, and the “destruction” of scenic views.  At the end of the June 24 meeting the Quorum Court voted 10-3 to reject Smith’s application.  Four days later the county sent Smith an email containing a letter of denial that stated, among other things, that “the minutes and video of the first and last Quorum Court meetings will act as the County’s written reason for denial.”  The minutes from the June 4 meeting were already available at that time; however, minutes from the June 24 meeting were not available until July 22.  Smith appealed to district court citing a violation of the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA).  The district court determined that the county could not rely on the meeting minutes to constitute a legally adequate explanation for the denial under the FTA, ans so remanded the matter back to the Quorum Court with an order to explain the reasons for the denial in a writing separate from the minutes and written record.  The county did so on April 18, 2014, largely citing the reasons advanced by the neighbors.  The district court was satisfied with this, and so it was Smith appealing this ruling that brought the case before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Smith argued that under the district court’s authority to review FTA matters “on an expedited basis” the court should have simply “ordered the issuance of a permit” because the county had failed to provide an adequate written explanation for its denial.  The Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning.  It noted that in T-Mobile South the US Supreme Court recently held that “a locality may rely on detailed meeting minutes so long as the locality’s reasons are stated clearly enough to enable judicial review.”  Thus, contrary to the district court’s first ruling, the county did not violate the FTA by relying on the meeting minutes.

What about the fact that the minutes from the June 24 meeting were not available until July 22?  In T-Mobile South the Supreme Court also said that a local governments must provide written reasons for its denial “essentially contemporaneously” with the denial.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the minutes of the June 4 meeting, which were available at the time of the denial, captured essentially the same concerns as were articulated on June 24.  Representatives of Smith attended both meetings.  “In light of these facts and the record before use, Smith received adequate notice of the reasons for the Quorum Court’s denial….[The county’s] failure to promptly make the latter meeting minutes available was, at most, a harmless error,” and did not require the district court to order immediate issuance of a CUP.

The Court of Appeals also went on to determine, after thoroughly reviewing all of Smith’s contentions and the record as a whole, that substantial evidence supported the Quorum Court’s denial of the CUP application.  “Aesthetic concerns can be a valid basis on which to deny [a] permit, so long as the aesthetic judgment is grounded in the specifics of the case and not based on generalized aesthetic concerns…that are applicable to any tower, regardless of location.”

The district court decision favoring the county was affirmed.

 

cell towers, Federal courts, Telecommunications towers , ,

More on cell towers…”in writing” requirement

March 25th, 2015

In keeping with the cell tower theme from yesterday, the following is an excerpt of my article that appeared in this month’s Iowa County regarding the T-Mobile case.

U.S. Supreme Court decision impacts local administration of cell tower applications.

The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (FTA) injected federal law into local control over the siting of wireless facilities (cell towers). The FTA requires, among other things, that a local board or commission’s denial of an application for a wireless facility “shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.” This has come to be known as the “in writing” requirement. Since 1996 federal courts have come to different conclusions about what local boards and commissions must do to satisfy this requirement. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case of T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell to clear up some of the confusion caused by the disagreements among the lower courts.

T-Mobile South applied to build a 108-foot cell tower in a residential neighborhood in Roswell, Georgia. The tower was to look like a pine tree, branches and all, though it would have stood at least twenty feet taller than surrounding trees. The city’s zoning department recommended approval subject to several conditions. At the city council’s public hearing four council members expressed concerns about the tower, and a motion to deny the application passed unanimously. Two days later, the city sent T-Mobile a denial letter. The letter did not provide reasons, but did explain how to obtain the minutes from the hearing. At that time, only “brief minutes” were available; the city council did not formally approve detailed minutes recounting the council members’ statements until its next meeting, twenty-six days later. T-Mobile filed suit, won in District Court, lost in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court issued its decision on January 14.

The following three points important to local governments result from the Supreme Court decision:

  1.  Local government must provide written reasons for denying a cell tower application. The Court determined that “supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record” imposes upon local governments a requirement to provide written reasons when they deny cell tower applications. The Court explained that it would be extremely difficult for courts to review local decisions on cell towers if localities did not state their reasoning 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.” Although not stated by the Court, it remains important that local boards and commissions base their decisions on the criteria found in the local ordinance when approving/denying cell tower applications.
  2. The denial and written reasons do not need to be in the same document; i.e., separate detailed minutes satisfy this requirement. Local governments are not required to provide their reasons in the denial notice itself, but may state those reasons in some other written record. The practice in many communities is to let detailed minutes (or even a verbatim transcript) of hearings stand as the “written record” of board and commission decisions. The Court held that this practice satisfies the “in writing” requirement of the FTA. At the same time the Court gave advice to local governments that “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.”
  3.  If the decision and written reasons are in separate documents they must be issued “essentially contemporaneously.” The Court further determined, however, that because the FTA requires a wireless company challenging a denial to commence its lawsuit within 30 days of the denial, the denial and written reasons, if 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 …the locality must provide or make available its written reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial.” 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 … and instead release it along with its reasons once those reasons are ready to be provided.”

The Court concluded that because Roswell did not issue its denial and written reasoning (in the form of minutes) “essentially contemporaneously” it had violated the “in writing” requirement of the FTA.  The case was a loss for Roswell, but for local governments generally it affirms the practice of many local governments that do not issue formal denials containing the rationale for the decision, but instead rely on the minutes for the rationale.

 

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

More cell tower discussion, documents from National League of Cities and NaCO, and a webinar tomorrow

March 24th, 2015

Last November I posted four pieces discussing the FCC’s October 2014 declaratory ruling explaining/interpreting Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act (aka the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act), which reads:

[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.

(Advice: You may need to read or reread the four pieces for the necessary background to follow the rest of this post).

Yesterday I had a good discussion with Dustin Miller of the Iowa League of Cities about how the 60-day deadline for making decisions on “eligible facilities requests” found in the Spectrum Act can be squared with the 90-day deadline for collocations found in the 2009 FCC declaratory ruling. He provided me with copies of some valuable documents that the PCIA and the National League of Cities worked on together and recently released, including a Wireless Facility Siting Model Chapter for local ordinances, and accompanying Cover Sheet and Checklist. With regard to collocations, the 60-day deadline (from date application is filed) found in the Spectrum Act technically only applies to collocations that do not result in a substantial change to the physical dimensions of the existing facility as that term is defined in the 2014 ruling. So for example, deploying a new antenna array that protrudes more than 6 feet from the edge of an existing tower located in the public ROW would not fall under the new ruling (with its 60-day deadline) because that would be a substantial change to the physical dimensions of the tower.  Instead, such an application would be covered by the 90-day deadline for collocations as set forth in the 2009 ruling.

The conversation with Dustin revolved around the hair-splitting that often will be required of local governments to know whether the 60-day or 90-day deadline applies in any given circumstance.  Site plans are not always as detailed as would be necessary to apply the FCC rules, equipment is constantly evolving in a way that muddies the interpretation of the rules, and so on.  At a minimum local governments should require wireless industry applicants to clearly state in their applications whether they believe the 60-day (collocation involving no substantial change) or 90-day (collocation that is a substantial change) deadline applies, and provide substantiating details sufficient for the local government to make its own judgment.  If an application is mistakenly treated as one with a 90-day deadline but belongs in the 60-day category, however, it must be deemed automatically approved any time after the 60th day, upon notification by the applicant.  Of course, disagreement over the 60 vs. 90 judgment in and of itself can give rise to litigation, as the wireless industry will want to establish precedents for putting more types of modifications into the 60-day category.

One potential solution for local governments is the safe approach – Simply apply the 60-day deadline to all collocation requests, whether or not they meet one of the tests for determining substantial change. 

As always, of course, none of this is legal advice.  That is what your city or county attorney provides!

The National League of Cities is sponsoring a webinar tomorrow on the cell tower topic.  This is the relevant information:

Increasing Wireless Communications Services for Your Residents
Wednesday, March 25, 2:00 – 3:15 pm Central Time
To register click here.

Wireless communications services are vital to cities because it improves the ways residents can get online and access information. In an effort to increase Internet access through wireless networks, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed a set of rules around wireless siting practices that cities will need to adhere to. Panelists on this webinar will discuss the importance of wireless broadband for their communities and how local governments are getting ready to respond to the new FCC rules.

cell towers, Federal legislation , , , ,

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.

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

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.

cell towers, Federal legislation , , , ,

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 or denied 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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