New Law Limits Local Government Control Over Telecom Facilities

By R. Todd HuntWilliam R. Hanna and Matthew J. Federico, Legal Extern, Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Last week, President Obama signed House Bill 3630 into law. This law extends payroll tax deductions and unemployment benefits, but there is also a provision that essentially mandates local government approval of applications for modifications of "an existing wireless tower or base station." This section may put local governments in a difficult position with respect to wireless tower companies which have properties in their jurisdiction.

The law pushes aside a portion of Section 332(c)(7) of the federal Telecommunications Act, which granted local governments authority to control where cellular and wireless towers, antennas, and other related facilities can be located.

The new law states: "Notwithstanding [section 332(c)(7)] or any other provision of law, a state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facility's 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."

Wireless tower companies will undoubtedly see this language as a green light from the federal government to push local governments into approving applications they have filed to expand or reconfigure their facilities. However, the clarity of the new law leaves much to be desired. It does not forbid a local government from reviewing the application and it contains some ambiguities. It would be prudent, therefore, to review your community's regulations in light of this federal mandate.