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.


ynm6g3o8kphmz7dp-1024x785.jpgA new Harvard report predicts a big jump in home remodeling – and with markets like Greater Boston that have lots of older homes leading the way. With the real estate market in recovery mode, a lot of folks in the last few years have put their money towards additions, in-law suites, finished basements, expanded garages, tear-downs, and other major home remodeling projects. In some cases, however, these projects require a special permit from the local zoning code. Here are some frequently asked questions about special permits under the Massachusetts Zoning Law. (I will cover variances for the next post).

Why Do I Need A Special Permit?

The most common reason why a Special Permit is necessary is that the proposed dwelling or the new addition does not meet the setback requirements set forth in the local zoning bylaw. Setbacks are buffer zones surrounding your boundary lines which provide for a “no-build zone.” For example, in the Sudbury, Mass. zoning code for the basic residential district, the side yard setback is 20 feet, the rear yard setback is 30 feet, the front yard set back is 40 feet, and the maximum structure height is 2.5 stories, or 35 feet. So if your proposed in-law suite juts into the side yard setback of 20 feet, then you will need to obtain a special permit from the zoning board of appeals (ZBA).

The other reason you may need a special permit is if your property is “non-conforming” and you wish to make a major expansion or alteration to it. “Non-conforming” means that the zoning code has changed since your home was originally built. For example, in Sudbury, the basic residence zoning district is now a minimum of nearly 1 acre. Many Sudbury homes built in the 60’s are way under 1 acre, so they are “non-conforming.” Virtually any tear-down and major reconstruction or alteration of a non-conforming property will trigger review by the building inspector and the application for a special permit from the local zoning board.

What Do I Need To Do To Get A Special Permit?

Obtaining a special permit requires a formal application to the zoning board with your plan, notice to your abutters, and the presentation of your application in front of the board at the public hearing. It is a formal legal proceeding, and can be complex giving the nature of the zoning issues and the extent of any neighborhood opposition. The chances of success rise dramatically if you have an experienced Massachusetts zoning attorney handling the zoning application. I was an associate member on the Sudbury zoning board for 9 years, and have appeared before countless boards in other towns.

What Are The Legal Requirements For A Special Permit?

The specific requirements for a special permit differ from town to town. But they all have the same general theme. Here is the Sudbury Mass. standard:

  • That the use is in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the bylaw;
  • That the use is in an appropriate location and is not detrimental to the neighborhood and does not significantly alter the character of the zoning district;
  • Adequate and appropriate facilities will be provided for the proper operation of the proposed use;
  • That the proposed use would not be detrimental or offensive to the adjoining zoning districts and neighboring properties due to the effects of lighting, odors, smoke, noise, sewage, refuse materials or other visual nuisances;
  • That the proposed use would not cause undue traffic congestion in the immediate area.

What Happens At The Public Hearing?

The Board Chairman will open the hearing by reading the application or legal ad into the record. The applicant and/or their attorney is then called to make their presentation to the Board. Correspondence received from other town boards and or committees is read into the record as well as any correspondence from abutters. The Board members may ask questions of the applicant. The Chairman will ask if any audience members wish to speak.

For residential additions, tear downs and the like, the board is generally concerned with the general impact, if any, to the abutters, any safety or traffic issues, stormwater runoff, septic issues, and visual issues. Early communication with your neighbors is vital to ensuring the approval of your project. Neighborhood opposition to your application will decrease the likelihood of approval. While the board is technically not supposed to be a “second architect” on the project, many board members often provide comments and suggestions about the design of the project.

After all of the input the Board may close the public portion and discuss the request among themselves. The Board typically makes a decision at the end of their deliberations.

What Happens After The Board Reaches A Decision?

Once the Board makes a final decision, it is written up and and recorded with the Town Clerk. After a 20 day appeal period, the permit is mailed to the applicant, who then files the permit with the county Registry of Deeds. A copy is forwarded to the Board of Appeals Office and the Building Department. The Building Department may not issue a building permit or occupancy permit without receiving a copy of that recorded decision.

Can I Appeal The Board’s Decision?

Yes, you may appeal the decision in the Superior Court. You must act very quickly however, as appeals must be filed within 20 days of the filing of the decision with the Town Clerk. Zoning appeals are very complex and involve the submission of evidence at a trial before a Superior Court judge. It’s not something that should be undertaken without an attorney.

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Zoning Attorney, who formerly sat on the Sudbury, Mass. Zoning Board of Appeals. Attorney Vetstein handles zoning matters across the state including the Metrowest towns of Framingham, Natick, Wayland, Weston, Ashland, Sudbury, Wellesley, Northborough, Southborough and Westborough. He can be reached at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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