Congress designed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to encourage the growth of new communication technology and provide fair access to these services for every American. At the same time, the Act gave telecommunication companies broad powers to build their networks and prohibited communities from banning towers.
However, local communities can decide where towers should go and take steps to protect the scenic character of their community. The following strategies can help your community get ahead of this issue and fight for responsible local control of the height, placement, and visual impact of cell towers.
It is important that citizens understand the effects of insensitive wireless tower placement on their community. Organizing scenic conservation workshops, speaking to community groups, and writing articles for local newspapers are some good ways to educate citizens about wireless tower issues. Be sure to feature photographs that illustrate both good and bad tower placement.
Encouraging landowners to donate conservation easements or to agree to prohibit the construction of towers on their property can help limit the visual impact of wireless towers. Another voluntary measure is to create an awards program that honors companies for good tower placement.
Offering property tax breaks, reduced permit fees, and faster processing times to telecommunication companies that agree to co-locate with other towers or disguise towers can encourage sensitive tower placement. Co-location is the placement of antennas on existing structures such as pre-existing towers, buildings, water towers, street lights, utility poles, and even silos in rural areas. Stealth towers are towers disguised as landscape features such as trees, flagpoles, clock towers, and other everyday structures. Another strategy is to allow companies to cluster antennae in less sensitive areas. For example, Jefferson County, CO has concentrated all of its towers on one hilltop that naturally hides more than half of the hill’s 23 towers.
It is important that local officials understand that the Telecommunications Act prevents the banning of towers, but not their regulation. According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local ordinances:
- must not discriminate among competing providers;
- must not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting wireless service;
- must act on permits within a reasonable time;
- must provide written denials based on substantial evidence;
- must not base denials on emissions.
1. Enact a moratorium on the construction of new towers. This allows your community to prevent the problem from getting worse while it examines options for controlling towers. A moratorium gives your community time (typically 60-180 days) to conduct a study and develop an ordinance to control towers. During the moratorium, your community should address the following questions:
How many towers does the industry propose for present and future use? The rapid growth of telecommunications has meant that many competing providers are presenting local governments with dozens of applications at the same time. Communities need to cooperate with providers to develop a plan that identifies areas of current and projected demand and weighs this against the sensitivity of the surrounding landscape. The Cape Cod Commission and the planning office of Liberty, MS are examples of bodies that use this sort of information to promote sensitive tower placement.
How tall should towers be? In addition to the location of towers, a chief concern among citizens is their height. Technology allows towers as tall as a 30-story building to be quickly erected on small parcels of land. Because wireless telecommunication relies on “line of sight” transmission, companies argue that towers of this size are necessary to provide adequate service. Communities need to evaluate their landscape and set a reasonable height limit to avoid towers looming over their surroundings.
2. Use the information that your community has gathered to pass an ordinance limiting the visual impact of towers. The only way to ensure that your community will be protected from the proliferation of unsightly towers is to enact strong legislation. Silver City, NM, Cuyahoga Co., OH, Albemarle Co, VA, and many others have all passed ordinances to limit the visual impact of towers. Some common regulations include:
- Restricting the types and heights of facilities within certain zoning districts;
- Limiting tower height to no more than 10-20 feet above other features such as trees and buildings;
- Imposing setbacks of at least 150 percent of the tower’s height.
3. Monitor tower applications and approvals to ensure that they follow ordinances and comprehensive plans. It is important to keep authorities focused on the appearance of towers and enforcement of legislation. Requiring companies to submit a perspective drawing of the proposed tower is a way of ensuring this. Also, if your community has passed provisions for the removal of abandoned towers, this will require oversight to ensure that officials follow through with the process.