Act creates cell tower location challenges
Since President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 a year ago, local governments have confronted many new challenges and opportunities. Telecommunications deregulation has created a marketplace filled with new, more efficient technologies – technologies that can contribute to economic growth in cities and counties and help local businesses stay competitive.
At the same time, the influx of new telecommunications providers poses significant challenges for local governments as they carry out their traditional zoning and land use functions.
One key dilemma is how to address the tremendous growth of cellular and personal communications service (PCS) technologies. In some communities, local officials can expect visits and proposals from as many as eight different wireless providers – all seeking to locate antenna facilities. Nationwide, the number of such antennas may grow by more than six times – to 120,000 -by the year 2000. This expected growth places considerable new demands, both financial and managerial, on local governments.
The wireless industry is anxious to build networks quickly, and citizens want access to these new technologies. But citizens also are concerned about the impact of new antennas and towers on public health and safety, property values and community aesthetics. Responsibility for balancing these concerns lies with local officials.
Although the act prohibits local governments from banning wireless services altogether or discriminating among wireless providers, Congress also preserved a key role for local governments in tower and antennae siting decisions.
For most communities, reviewing and amending the local zoning ordinance is an essential first step in dealing effectively with these rapidly proliferating technologies. The absence of a zoning ordinance addressing siting issues – or the presence of an overreaching ordinance that violates the new law – leaves a community unprepared to deal with industry demands or court challenges.
Cities and counties have implemented a number of effective approaches to involve citizens and industry in the development of local ordinances and plans for siting towers and antennae. These approaches range from traditional public hearings to independent advisory groups, commissions, task forces and industry-sponsored meetings. Also, interlocal working groups have successfully ensured coordinated planning and uniform approaches to siting facilities within metropolitan regions.
Industry and local government partnerships also can be effective in dealing with the potentially conflicting interests of siting cellular and PCS towers. These partnerships take many forms, including agreements between service providers and local governments to site antennae on public property and agreements to construct new towers to support the facilities of both public and private wireless services networks. By entering into partnerships, local governments can improve their own public safety and other communications systems and reap additional revenue as well.
The variety of approaches to integrating community and industry concerns into tower siting can be as varied as the technologies involved. By involving both the community and industry early on in the planning process, governments can develop a sustainable strategy that fosters competition among providers and preserves community safety, property and aesthetics.
Local government officials can obtain a guide, “Siting Cellular Towers: What You Need to Know, What You Need to Do,” from the National League of Cities by calling (301) 725-4299.