Cities are receiving more applications for  small cell tower permits as industry is pushing to expand its small cell distributed antenna system (DAS).  Local governments are responding by writing thoughtful ordinances in order to  maintain some measure of control in the placement of cell towers as well as revenue they can gain from their installation. 13 states, however, have passed laws in 2017 that now allow for streamlining placement of “small cell” antenna throughout cities on public utility poles by removing local control and oversight 13 States Pass Fast Tracking of Small Cell Antenna.

With regards to cell towers there is a continued lack of  transparency in terms of monitoring, power densities or frequencies allowed. There is also growing awareness of the potential health effects from near exposure to cell tower radiation.  In Europe they generally abide by the “as low as reasonable able” policy set forth in the 2011 European Parliament Resolution 1815: The potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment.  European Parliament 2011. For scientific information on cell tower health effects visit PST Cell Tower Health Effects

Austin Sues Texas Over Law Streamlining Cell Towers

Texas passed a streamlining law in 2017 for widespread placement of small cell antenna on city utility poles, however, the City of Austin had concerns about the loss of millions of dollars of annual revenue, in addition to a loss of local control. Austin has sued the state of Texas. Bennett Sandlin, Executive Director for the Texas Municipal League stated stated “The problem is, the Texas constitution doesn’t allow rights of way to be given away. You have to compensate the taxpayers.”



Local Ordinances Either Streamlining or Controlling Cell Tower Placement

Some cities have passed streamlining laws allowing placement of cell antenna for future technology without any concern for historic preservation, local control or provisions for safety or monitoring.  Many cities however wish to retain local control. If a city or county does not wish to allow cell antenna placement they can argue aesthetics or gap coverage but there is no ability to argue health or environmental effects as a reason to reject a cell tower.  Federal bills are being introduced to remove local authority Streamlining Small Cell Permits. Cities and counties can craft their own ordinances now  to give more power and flexibility to local governments for cell tower siting.  Legal assistance is important to assure there is no violation of the Telecommunication Act of 1996. Many feel section 704 needs to be repealed because it prevents discussion or consideration of health or environmental effects as a reason to deny antenna placement.

Arguing against Cell Tower Placement

Ordinances can contain provisions about placement in residential areas including requirements for specific set backs from  homes, historic preservation considerations, aesthetic requirements, monitoring requirements, placement of cellular communication equipment that is only currently commercially available and specifically not for planned or future equipment and perhaps requirements/limits on power density levels from the equipment. On a Federal level significant gap needs to be shown to agree for cell towers.


Hillsborough Cell Towers Proposed in Residential Neighborhoods

December 22, 2017, residents in Hillsborough, a wealthy San Francisco suburb, successfully fought a 16 cell tower installation in their residential neighborhoods on the grounds of improper public notice, no community meetings and no environmental review.  Although the telecom company is expected to return with another proposal this was a thoughtful and researched approach to addressing cell towers in residential neighborhoods. Attorney Patric Shannon who has lead the fight in Hillsborough, California highlights the need for reform in city governments to ensure proper review of cell towers.   Hillsborough Homeowners Push Back Against Cell Towers

Cell Phone Towers Outside Your Window – Why You Don’t Have The Right To Fight

CBS news discussing a local fight in San Francisco in 2015 to prevent installation of a small cell tower in a neighborhood. This was only 2 of hundreds of permits that were denied.

Many Cities and Schools Now Fighting Cell Towers

In California

Concord Regional School Committee rejects cell tower; debate continues in Concord Concord School Cell Tower Debate

Hillsborough Hillsborough Residents fight Cell Towers

Monterey Monterey Vista Residents Concerned About New Cell Technology

Oakland Oakland Residents Fight to Keep Cell Towers at Bay

Palo Alto Palo alto Residents Oppose Verizon Plan to Add 92 Cell Antennas in Neighborhoods

Piedmont Cell Antenna Sites OK’d: No One’s Happy

Running Springs- Catholic Church and Retreat Center,Proliferation of Cell Towers Raises Concerns

Santa Rosa New Verizon antennas generate unwelcome buzz in Santa Rosa


Ordinance Cell Towers Palos Verdes

Here is an example of an ordinance from Palo Verdes which has some specific provisions for placement of cell towers such as in residential areas, on new poles, or where their would be impairment of view.  Palos Verdes Wireless Technology Facilities Ordinance June 2017


Cell Tower Lawsuit Reversed in Palos Verdes

Here is a 2009 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on a lawsuit filed by Sprint vs City of Palos Verdes Estates after Palos Verdes denied a permit in a residential neighborhood. The court  reversed the decision by the lower court and ruled in favor of Palos Verdes. Palos Verdes vs Sprint 2009


City of Palo Alto: 100 New Small Cell Antennas Proposed 2017

Here is an Architectural Review Board staff review  September 21, 2017  for a permit request for 100 new small cell applications for the City of Palo Alto. Palo alto  opposed  California’s SB649 to “streamline” applications for small cells which would remove local authority for cell tower placement. Many cities in California are now actively fighting cell towers in residential and business areas- Hillsborough, Monterey and Nevada City to mention a few. Palo Alto Architectural Review Board Small Cell antenna 2017

Here is a Palo Alto Ordinance clarifying Spectrum Act definitions.

How Can Cities Fight Small Cell Tower Placement?

With a plethora of city, state and Federal regulations to wade through local governments and residents often do not know how to approach this issue if they have concerns about cell towers being close to schools, homes or businesses.

Here is a legal perspective on telecommunications law linked to the League of Cities.  Wireless Antenna Update: Distributed Antenna Systems State and Federal Mandatory Collocation; New Regulatory and Legal Challenges  Blake Levitt’s book Cell Towers-Wireless Convenience? or Environmental Hazard? (2000) may also be useful. 


Below is a list of some of the regulations that come into play and important to understand. There are several new Federal laws proposed to fast track cell tower placement.  Federal Streamlining Small Cell Antenna Laws 2017

Federal Laws

The Telecommunciation Act of 1996.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act of 1996 has several clauses to consider. One prohibits any discussion of health or environmental harm in a public forum or for denial of a permit. It also  discusses discrimination of carriers, the language of  “significant gap in coverage” as a reason for approving a permit. Supplying written substantial evidence is important for cities who wish to deny a permit.Telecommunications Act 1996


The Spectrum Act of 2012

The Spectrum Act,  is an added section of the Payroll Deduction Act and called the  Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, 

This Act facilitates the telecommunications industry’s rapid deployment of wireless  infrastructure by requiring local governments to approve any application by a carrier that asks to modify and existing cellular communication structure that does not “substantially change” the existing facility.   Section 6409 states cities ““may not deny, and shall approve any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.” (47 U.S.C. § 1455(a)(1).) Section 6409 defines “eligible facilities request” as “any request for modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that involves –

(a) collocation of new transmission equipment;

(b) removal of transmission equipment; or

(c) replacement of transmission equipment.”