Towers and Land Use Issues

Wireless telecommunications providers want to locate their antennas wherever they can serve large numbers of people. A few years ago, this usually meant along major highways, but today, wireless telecommunications facilities are going up along secondary roads, on neighborhood streets, in schoolyards, or even in parks. As the competition for locations continues, providers will locate their facilities just about anywhere. Clearly, this proliferation of wireless telecommunications facilities can lead to visual chaos, which is why communities need to develop a carefully-planned and coordinated strategy.

Since the advent of comprehensive zoning in the early 20th century, local jurisdictions have sought to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial activity. The theory underpinning this practice has long been to “protect” residential areas from the noise, odors, unsightliness, danger, and traffic which commercial activities can generate. In jurisdictions with comprehensive zoning, wireless telecommunications facilities must conform to local land use controls. However, in many communities, poorly worded or nonexistent policies result in telecommunications towers being placed in or near residential or scenic areas. In addition, many states consider wireless telecommunications a public utility and give providers preferential zoning treatment, such as less stringent review criteria.

It is therefore important to understand how your local comprehensive plan and zoning code treat wireless towers. There are two basic ways planning or zoning officials control land-uses: “permitted” (or “by-right” uses) and “special use” (sometimes called “special exceptions” or “conditional use requirement”). An example of “permitted” use is allowing single-family homes in a particular type of zone. “Special use” permits set a higher regulatory hurdle. For example, any wireless tower more than 40 feet tall might be required to obtain a special exception. Because of the extra requirements associated with special use permits, wireless industry representatives seek to get their towers listed as permitted uses.

Categorizing wireless telecommunications towers as special use structures subjects them to more stringent review criteria. The special use structure designation also gives citizens concerned about the proliferation of towers an important tool for protecting sensitive or special areas such as documented scenic viewsheds, historic districts, or residential areas.

The intent of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was to encourage the development of competitive communication services for all Americans. Local officials have a responsibility to use local policy to help protect residential and visually sensitive areas from inappropriate tower siting. Yet until recently, a few communities even dealt with the placement of wireless towers in their codes or comprehensive plans. However, today many jurisdictions are scrambling to adopt language that gives them some control over placement, design, and other aspects of the appearance of wireless towers.