Authored Articles & Publications Apr 20, 2016

Cell Siting Dilemmas

By Joseph Van Eaton and Gerard Lavery Lederer

With an increasing demand for wireless services comes more requests for placement of wireless antennas and supporting structures. Many of those requests are being submitted by competing companies that do not actually provide wireless services, but plan to build structures that could be used to provide wireless facilities. The rush by some companies to submit applications is leading to requests to place towers in places that could raise significant safety and ADA issues — and potentially impact home values.

Case in point: Below is a Google Maps Street View of a Georgia street where one company asked to place a structure that is 120 feet high (about the height of a 12-story residential building and about four times higher than the utility pole in the picture) and 3 feet, 6 inches wide at the base. The request is for the verge between the sidewalk and the curb. According to the documents the company submitted, the pole would be placed near the larger crepe myrtle on the right; the structure would be a monopole held in place by a 50-foot metal plate — roughly occupying the entirety of the verge and likely preventing expansion of the sidewalk and the street itself without removal of the tower. At the time it submitted the request to site, the company had not registered with the State of Georgia to do business and had not obtained necessary approvals from the Georgia Public Service Commission.

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It would be nice to say that this is an exception, but similar applications were submitted in cities across the country, accompanied by statements implying that state law required approval (even where it did not). And the very submission of the documents, however deficient, creates problems for local governments since there are rigorous time lines for responding to applications in many states and a separate set of federal deadlines for action. In some states, for example, the failure to timely respond to even an application (like this one) that raises significant issues could mean that the application is approved — and leave the locality with limited recourse for correcting problems.

Takeaways:

  • Localities can expect to receive many more applications for wireless facilities over the next year because the wireless industry needs thousands of wireless locations to deliver advanced, wireless data services.
  • Some of the applications will be for placement of facilities in rights of way: light poles, utility poles and on enormous structures in the right of way, even in areas where all other utilities are underground. Those applications will be for residential neighborhoods and in redeveloped commercial areas, where the locality or residents may have spent millions undergrounding facilities.
  • Localities need to be sure that their wireless ordinances and staff are ready to handle applications as they come in — particularly where rights of way are concerned. And, among other things, localities need to be sure that staff responsible for planning and management of rights of way know what to do when someone requests the right to place wireless facilities and be aware that immediate responses may be critical.


The wireless industry has done a good job convincing legislators and regulators that localities are irresponsibly delaying deployment of wireless. It is very important that communities begin to let regulators and legislators know that localities are now receiving applications for placement of facilities that could truly damage neighborhoods and communities — and localities will need some latitude to protect against the potential harms.

Note: This article originally appeared on the now-defunct BBKnowledge blog, where Best Best & Krieger authors shared their knowledge on emerging issues in public agency law.

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