More on cell towers…”in writing” requirement

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.


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