Lisa Murphy, of LeClairRyan in Norfolk, Virginia is an attorney representing wireless carriers in land use matters (read: she represents carriers before government agencies). On February 24th, Lisa and I spoke on a panel at the AGL Conference in Las Vegas, which touched on Section 6409’s potential impacts on the siting process.
Not surprisingly, Lisa and I do not agree on how far 6409 will reach to change the siting process. That said, the views expressed in her recent blog post are well worth considering in the larger context of the national discussions now beginning on how to implement this new law.
At first glance, this would appear to require all state and local governments to approve collocation requests as well as any site upgrades. What is interesting about the language Congress chose is that it left open the possibility that state and local governments could still deny applications for collocation on structures that are not “existing towers”, as was indicated in a February 22nd blog post by Jonathan Kramer, with whom I presented a program last Friday at the AGL Western Regional Wireless Conference entitled, “What We Can Teach Municipalities About Wireless”. Jonathan advises local governments on how the 1996 Telecommunications Act impacts their authority to zone and permit wireless sites and assists municipalities in their review of wireless site applications. Jonathan’s position is that collocating antennas on structures that are not “wireless towers” could still be subject to denial by municipalities depending on the applicable local ordinances and how they define the term “tower”. Our other co-presenter, Robert Jystad, who represents carriers and tower companies on all facets of site development, and I disagreed with Jonathan on the practical impact the new law would have on site development and site upgrades, but all on the panel agreed that this will no doubt lead to interesting conversations at the local and state level, between lawyers for the industry and state and local government representatives.
I disagree with Jonathan and agree with Robert that Section 6409 will likely trump state and local ordinances to the extent that they prevent modifications to “grandfathered” sites, sites that were never zoned or that pre-date current wireless tower ordinances. I also agree with Robert that Section 6409 should apply to collocation on all structures. Unfortunately, there is no record of Congress’ intent with regard to the interpretation of the phrase “existing tower”, but given its plain meaning and Congress’ explicit intent to usurp the authority of state and local governments to deny collocation and site modification requests, the term arguably applies to any structure that can support wireless antennas. In that regard, Section 6409 may also trump zoning conditions imposed on towers that limit antenna collocation and placement. One thing that Section 6409 did not do was waive any existing requirements imposed by the National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”) or the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (“NEPA”). As a result, to the extent that a proposed collocation or antenna modification implicates NHPA or NEPA, compliance is still required. Interestingly, Congress did not carve out or exclude from Section 6409 environmental or historical reviews that may be required under state or local law, only federal law.
Lisa makes other interesting and informative points from the industry’s view. To read her entire blog post click here. Look around her blog while you’re there.