Church entitled to restore prayer trail because denial likely to be proven to be a substantial burden on religious exercise under RLUIPA

by Gary Taylor

Catholic Healthcare International v. Genoa Charter Township (MI)

Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 11, 2023

Catholic Healthcare International wanted to create a prayer trail with 14 “Stations of the Cross” on a wooded 40-acre property it owns in Genoa Charter Township. No part of the prayer trail would be visible from outside the property. A few miles away, in Fillmore County Park, the Township had created a 15-station reading trail of its own, with large signs telling the tale of “Leopold the Lion.” The Township considered the prayer trail to be a church building, for which the following special use permit application items would be required:

  • Completed Special Land Use Application.
  • Completed Site Plan Review Application.
  • $2,875.00 Special Land Use/Site Application Fee.
  • Four (4) Sets of Site Plans (folded) that comply with the applicable
    requirements found in the Site Plan Review Application.
  • Four (4) copies of an Environmental Impact Assessment.

At considerable expense, Catholic Healthcare submitted two unsuccessful applications. Catholic Healthcare moved forward anyway, creating the prayer trail as designed. The Township demanded the removal of the Stations of the Cross, plus a stone altar and mural. Catholic Healthcare did not comply with that demand; instead, given the Township’s insistence on treating the prayer trail as a church, plaintiffs decided to expedite their longer-term plan to seek approval for an actual church building. The Township Planning Commission approved the plan for a 95-seat, 6,090 square foot church with associated parking lot, lighting and outdoor accessory structures, but the Township Board denied the request and renewed its demand that the prayer trail be removed.

The rest of the facts are unclear even to the Court of Appeals. The salient point is that at some point a group of church volunteers physically removed all the religious displays from the prayer trail, and at some later point Catholic Healthcare sought a preliminary injunction to restore the Stations of the Cross, altar, and mural, claiming that, as applied to them, the Township’s zoning ordinance violated the federal Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the Michigan Constitution. The district court twice denied that request, holding that its free-exercise and statutory claims are unripe.

The Sixth Circuit reversed, stating that in land-use cases, claims are “ripe” when the government has adopted a “definitive position” as to “how the regulations at issue apply to the particular land in question.” Here, the Township has uniformly insisted that Catholic Healthcare obtain a special land-use permit and has twice refused to grant a permit. Those events have “inflicted an actual, concrete injury” because the Township has actually forced them to remove the religious displays. Catholic Healthcare showed that it can likely prove that the Township has imposed a “substantial burden” on its religious exercise, and that the Township failed to use the “least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest” as required by RLUIPA. Because Catholic Healthcare is likely to succeed on the merits of its claim under RLUIPA, the preliminary injunction requested by Catholic Healthcare should be granted.

Rural water district could not prove ability to provide or make available water service in disputed area

by Gary Taylor

Washington County Water Co., v. City of Sparta, Illinois

Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 8, 2023

The Agriculture Act of 1961 authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide loans to rural water associations to decrease the cost and ensure an adequate supply of safe water for farmers and other rural residents. To ensure that these associations could repay their loans, Congress enacted 7 U.S.C. § 1926(b), which prohibits municipalities and others from selling water in an area that a USDA-indebted rural water association has “provided or made available” its service. To be entitled to protection under § 1926(b), the rural water association must have the physical capability to provide service to the disputed area and a legal right to do so under state law.

Washington County Water Company (WCWC) is a rural water association that sells potable water to several counties in southern Illinois. The Village of Coulterville is adjacent to these counties. In 2019, due to the deteriorating state of its water treatment facility, Coulterville explored the possibility of buying water from either WCWC or the City of Sparta. Coulterville ultimately decided to buy water from Sparta because it was not convinced that WCWC could provide enough water to satisfy its residents’ demands. When WCWC learned of this decision, it filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that § 1926(b) prohibited Sparta from selling water to Coulterville because WCWC had “made its service available” to Coulterville. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sparta, holding that WCWC was not entitled to § 1926(b) protection because WCWC did not have a legal entitlement to provide water to Coulterville under Illinois state law. WCWC appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Because the Seventh Circuit had not explicitly addressed the question of how to determine when an association has “provided or made available” service to a certain area, it looked to other federal circuits’ opinions. Every other circuit has adopted some variation of the “physical capability” test: a two-pronged test that asks (1) whether the association had “water pipes either within or adjacent to the disputed area before the allegedly encroaching association begins providing service to customers in the disputed area,” and (2) whether the association has the “legal right under state law to provide water to the disputed area. In this case the Seventh Circuit focused on the “legal right under state law” question. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) – the state agency regulating water service – mandates that a water service provider’s system “must be designed to produce at least 20 percent greater than [its] maximum average daily demand ….” in order to establish a right to provide service to a given area. The district court calculated WCWC’s maximum average daily demand to be 1,608,297 gallons per day. After adding the required 20 percent reserve WCWC needed to be “designed to produce” at least 1,929,956 gallons per day, and the district court concluded WCWC could not meet this standard.

The case eventually turned on the meaning of “designed to produce” under Illinois administrative regulations. The Seventh Circuit concluded that “designed to produce” must refer to the water association’s ability to furnish sufficient water to residents, whether it treats its own water or purchases it from others. For WCWC, this meant that the Court looked at its pumping capacity as limited by its contractual capacity, “after all, WCWC cannot pump what it cannot buy.” To interpret “designed to produce” as referring only to pumping capacity, a water association would be entitled to § 1926(b) protection even if they cannot purchase sufficient water to pump through those systems to meet demand. After reviewing the parties’ disagreements about WCWC’s pumping and contractual capacities, the Court concluded that WCWC could not meet the “20 percent greater than [its] maximum average daily demand” requirement. In doing so the Court dismissed WCWC’s contention that it could buy more water from its contractual suppliers within a reasonable time because WCWC provided no tangible evidence of this during discovery.

The duty to provide “reasonable accommodations” under the Fair Housing Act Amendments does not extended to alleviating downstream economic effects of a handicap.

by Gary Taylor

Klossner v. IADU Table Mound MHP, LLC and Impact MHC Management, LLC

Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 10, 2023

Suellen Klossner has lived in a mobile-home park in Dubuque, Iowa, since 2009. The park is owned by IADU Table Mound MHP, LLC, which is controlled by Impact MHC Management, LLC (Impact). Tenants in the park pay rent for a lot where they can situate a mobile home. Klossner receives income from government programs that she used to pay her rent for ten years. She is unable to work full-time due to psychiatric and physical disabilities.

In 2019, the City of Dubuque approved a measure allowing the local public housing authority to provide residents of mobile-home parks with housing choice vouchers that could be used to supplement their rent payments. Under this voucher program, the federal government provides funds to local public housing agencies, which in turn may distribute them to low-income tenants. As the rent on Klossner’s lot increased, she received a voucher and sought to use it to supplement her rent payments, but the companies declined to accept the voucher. Federal law does not require landlords to accept housing choice vouchers, and Impact declines to do so except (1) where state law requires acceptance, or (2) where the company has purchased property where a prior owner accepted vouchers from a holdover tenant—a total of approximately forty tenants out of more than twenty thousand under Impact’s management. Impact cited the administrative burdens of accepting vouchers.

The FHAA makes it unlawful to discriminate in housing or make unavailable a dwelling “because of a handicap of [a] buyer or renter.” “Handicap” is a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.” “Major life activities” means “functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.” The statute prohibits “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Klossner sued Impact and IADU Table Mound, alleging that the companies violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act by refusing to accept her voucher. Her theory was that she is a person with a “handicap” under the FHAA, and that the law required the companies to accept the housing voucher as a “reasonable accommodation” that was “necessary” to afford her “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The companies argued that although the FHAA calls for reasonable accommodations that directly ameliorate the effect of a handicap, the statute does not require a landlord to accommodate a tenant’s economic circumstances by accepting housing vouchers, and cited similar cases from the Federal 2nd and 7th Circuits in support of their defense. In the 2nd Circuit case the court reasoned that “the duty to make reasonable accommodations is framed by the nature of the particular handicap,” for example, providing a preferred parking space for tenants with difficulty walking, or lifting a no-pets rule to allow the use of a service dog by a blind person. The court concluded, however, that economic discrimination “… is practiced without regard to handicap,” and that the accommodation sought was not “necessary” to afford handicapped persons an “equal opportunity” to use and enjoy a dwelling. The court emphasized that the FHAA “does not elevate the rights of the handicapped poor over the non-handicapped poor,” and that “economic discrimination” is “not cognizable as a failure to make a reasonable accommodation” under the FHAA. In the 7th Circuit case a developer of a community designed for tenants using wheelchairs asked a municipality to grant a zoning variance to allow the construction of more structures on a plot of land, arguing that the proposed variance was necessary as a “reasonable accommodation” under the FHAA because it would reduce the cost of each housing unit, and thereby alleviate the economic impact of handicaps on prospective tenants who needed inexpensive housing. In rejecting the developer’s argument the 7th Circuit pointed out that if the reasonable accommodation provision required consideration of a tenant’s financial situation, then the statute would allow developers not only to ignore zoning laws, but also to obtain a “reasonable accommodation” that suspended a local building code that increased the cost of construction, or a minimum wage law, or regulations for the safety of construction workers. The statute did not call for these results, the court explained, because the duty of “reasonable accommodation” is limited to modifying rules or policies that hurt handicapped people by reason of their handicap, rather than by virtue of circumstances that they share with others, such as limited economic means.

The 8th Circuit found these cases persuasive in the present situation and ruled against Klossner. In interpreting the predecesor statute to the FHAA courts called for accommodations that provided the “direct amelioration of a disability’s effect,” but nothing in the law suggested that the duty of “reasonable accommodation” “extended to … alleviating downstream economic effects of a handicap.”

Planning Board denial not a “final action” under Federal Telecommunications Act when review by Board of Appeals required by ordinance

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Global Tower Assets, LLC; Northeast Wireless Networks, LLC v. Town of Rome
Federal 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, January 8, 2016

Global Tower Assets and Northeast Wireless Networks obtained a leasehold interest in Rome, Maine. According to Rome’s Ordinance applicants must get permission from Rome Planning Board to build a wireless communication tower.

The Ordinance includes a section that reads, “[a]dministrative appeals and variance applications submitted under this Ordinance shall be subject to the standards and procedures established by the Town of Rome Board of Appeals.”

The companies first asked for permission from the Planning Board to build the tower on April 8, 2013. The Board discussed the proposal on May 20, 2013 and held other meetings over the next few months. On February 10, 2014, the Planning Board voted to deny the application because the application was not complete. On March 10, 2014 the Planning Board published their decision. The decision was sent to the Board of Appeals for Review. The next day, the companies filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maine.

Part of their suit included complaints under the Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996. The TCA provides relief to those who are denied permission to build telecommunication facilities at the state or local level trough “final action”. However, the TCA does not define “final action”.  In this case, the question is whether the administrative process ended. The companies filed their TCA challenge to the Town of Rome Planning Board’s decision before the decision was reviewed by the local board of appeals. In Maine there is a general requirement that land use and zoning appeals are first heard by a zoning board of appeals before they can be litigated in state court.  Thus under Maine law “Rome necessarily made review by the board of appeals a prerequisite to judicial review.” There was an opportunity for the Planning Board’s decision to be overturned through an administrative (rather than judicial) process, meaning that the decision of the Planning Board was not a “final action” within the meaning of the TCA. The legislative history of the TCA does not reject a two-step administrative process at the local level to determine “final actions.”  Because the administrative process, as defined by Rome’s Ordinance was not complete the District Court was correct to dismiss the complaints.

Links to law presentations from 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference

The powerpoint presentations from the 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference held in Sioux City on October 14-16 are now available here.

Thursday afternoon session on Signs and Cell Towers, by Peter McNally, Dustin Miller and Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Cell Towers
Iowa APA 2015 Signs

Friday morning AICP Law session by Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Law session

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

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.

FCC ruling Part IV: Shot clock clarification and other matters

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.

FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part III

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.

FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part II

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.

FCC ruling on collocation explained, Part 1

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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