Where Did That Artificial-Looking Palm Tree Come From? – And answers to other questions about cell phone tower placement in Arizona

September 23, 2010 By Christopher A. Schmaltz In Legal Alerts

If you’ve ever wondered how cell phone towers end up here or there, you have your city’s local zoning codes and federal laws to thank. Most communities have zoning regulations governing where cell towers can be placed and the process an applicant must follow to get cell tower placement approval. City and town officials evaluate the potential impacts-from perspectives that include aesthetics and safety-a cell tower may have on surrounding properties.

Federal Law Trumps Local
Federal law then imposes rules on the review of cell tower requests to make sure that timing requirements are followed and that local codes don’t infringe on rights granted under federal law. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 bars local governments from adopting regulations that “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting” telecommunication services. This means that a local law that either explicitly-or in application-prohibits cell towers in certain locations could run afoul of federal law.

Interestingly, federal law also says that a city or town can’t reject a proposed wireless facility solely on the basis of fears over radio frequency (RF) emissions if the facility meets the FCC’s RF regulations. Cell tower applicants benefit from this law, in part, because public concern about the wireless signal is not allowed to be part of a local community’s consideration of a cell tower application.

So, you also may have noticed that some cell towers are now appearing in “stealth mode”-disguised as palm trees, crosses or other architectural features. This is an effort to make the cell tower “invisible” to help mitigate aesthetic objections to cell tower placement.

How You Can Get Involved
If cell towers and their placement are of interest to you, here’s what you can do to get more information about any proposed towers in your area.

  • If you see a sign or receive a letter about a proposed tower, call the phone number cited in the notice and request more information from your local planning department.
  • Attend scheduled meetings about the proposed tower. By speaking directly to cell tower applicants, your local government rep and decision-makers, you will likely get answers to your questions and have the opportunity to express any concerns.
  • Provide input. Reasonable, constructive input on design or placement is always more productive than a strict “not in my backyard” approach.
  • Ask about colocation, which refers to the placement of multiple wireless antennae on a single tower in a single location. Some local regulations require colocation unless it is not reasonable or technically feasible from an engineering or system perspective.

Keep in mind that these federal laws are intended, at least in part, to encourage providers to “fill the gaps” in cell phone coverage. This means your community’s cell tower placement process directly impacts the quality of the signal you receive on your cell phone. Even so, local governments still have a lot of control and flexibility in the location and aesthetic quality of a proposed cell tower. If you participate in that process, you can playa key role in where the next artificial-looking palm tree is planted in your community.

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