An Unlevel Playing Field: T-Mobile Wins Yet Another Massachusetts Cellular/Wireless Zoning Appeal

by Rich Vetstein on February 23, 2011 · 2 comments

in Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Zoning

With the proliferation of cellular/wireless service and coverage, Massachusetts town and cities have been bombarded in the last 10 years with applications for zoning relief for new cell towers and related equipment. These applications – especially in residential neighborhoods – raise the ire of local residents who don’t want cell towers in their backyards. Homeowners worry about the effect of electromagnetic frequencies on their children, aesthetics, and the impact to their property values.

Telecommunications Act of 1996

Local zoning boards’ ability to regulate cellular/wireless facilities, however, is significantly limited by the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) which provides that local zoning decisions cannot unreasonably discriminate among providers, have the effect of prohibiting service, or regulate on the basis of the effects of radio frequency emissions. The Telecommunications Act has spawned a decade’s worth of litigation in Massachusetts, with wireless servicers’ slugging percentage in the David Ortiz range.

T-Mobile Seeks To Bridge Coverage Gap

The most recent victory by the wireless industry is T-Mobile Northeast LLC v. City of Lawrence. T-Mobile sought to fill a coverage gap beset by those dreaded dropped calls in Lawrence’s Prospect Hill neighborhood by building a six foot high antennae hidden in a “stealth chimney” on top of a condominium building in a residential zone. Lawrence’s zoning ordinance bars wireless equipment in residential zones except on city-owned land, and requires a 1,000-foot setback from any residential lot. T-Mobile had previously asked the city to make municipal land available for its facility, but got no response. Having no other option, T-Mobile applied for the necessary zoning approvals and variances from the ownership and setback requirements.

Lawrence’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA) denied T-Mobile’s application, stating that it could not find sufficient facts to approve. (In other words, the majority of the board didn’t want the cell antennae at that location). At the hearing, some members of the ZBA expressed their views that the coverage gap was not real, ignoring T-Mobile’s expert, and that the antenna should go on municipal land so that the city could benefit financially. T-Mobile appealed the denial.

Federal Judge Lays The Smack-Down

The TCA provides for expedited review in federal court, another major advantage for wireless servicers which can by-pass often lengthy state superior and land court appeals. In federal court Judge Gorton pretty much eviscerated the board’s decision, as “rote” and merely parroting the relevant factors. The judge also characterized as “too little, too late” Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua’s plan to open up alternative municipally-owned sites for public bidding. The judge ordered that the permits be granted.

Lessons To Be Learned

The lesson in this case for town zoning boards is pretty simple. If you are going to deny a cell tower permit application, think twice and very hard at that. Perhaps consult town counsel before issuing a final decision, before causing your town to spend thousands on taxpayer funded legal fees with no reasonable chance of success.

Residents faced with cell towers and antennae in their neighborhoods need the assistance of an experienced Massachusetts zoning attorney who can navigate the complex TCA regulatory maze and utilize competing wireless coverage expert testimony. Upholding a denial of a cell tower appeal is very complex and challenging, but some neighborhood groups have been successful, despite the unlevel playing field of the Telecommunications Act. Check out Plymouth’s StopCenterHillTower.org for a recent example.

When I sat on the Sudbury Zoning Board of Appeals I presided over several cell tower permit applications, so I know both sides of the coin. It’s difficult, but not impossible to stop a cell tower from invading your neighborhood.

If you have any questions about Massachusetts cell tower zoning appeals, contact me, Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. via email by clicking here.

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