United States Supreme Court Clarifies Municipality's Responsibilities When Denying An Application for Cell Phone Tower Siting

by William R. Hanna and Benjamin G. Chojnacki

On Wednesday, January 14, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision clarifying what information must be provided when denying an application for cell phone tower siting under the Telecommunications Act. T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Georgia, 574 U.S. ____ (2015).

The City Council of Roswell, Georgia held a public hearing to consider an application to build a cell phone tower on residential property, filed by T-Mobile South. During the hearing, several members of Council voiced concerns about the impacts of the proposed tower on the area. At the conclusion of the hearing, Council passed unanimously a motion to deny the application. Two days later, the City notified T-Mobile that the application was denied, and told T-Mobile that there would be minutes from the hearing. The minutes were published 26 days later. T-Mobile sued, alleging that the denial wasn't supported by substantial evidence in the record. The District Court agreed with T-Mobile, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the City complied with law, because T-Mobile had received a written denial letter and had a transcript of the hearing (for which it had arranged). T-Mobile appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the Telecommunications Act requires a municipality to provide written reasons for denying an application for cell phone tower siting. Although the municipality does not have to include its reasons in the letter notifying the applicant of the denial, T-Mobile South requires the municipality to make such reasons available in writing "at essentially the same time" the denial is communicated to the applicant. The significance of the requirement for contemporaneous availability of the written reasons for denial is that an entity whose application is denied has 30 days from the date of denial to decide whether to seek judicial review, such that the 26 days between the denial in this case and the availability of the minutes explaining the reasons for the denial put the applicant in a difficult position.

Municipalities considering applications for cell phone tower siting need to review this opinion to ensure they are processing applications in compliance with Supreme Court precedent. If you have questions about the decision, or any other telecommunications issues, please contact one the attorneys in Walter | Haverfield LLP's Telecommunications & Right-Of-Way Group.