City Hall and Cell Towers

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 reviewing their wireless siting procedures and amending  or rewriting ordinances and codes in order to  maintain some measure of control in the placement of cell towers in addition to maintaining revenue from cell tower installations.

New City Rules: Stronger for Citizens or For Industry?

Although some cities like Monterey, Santa Rosa and Danville have proposed rules to streamline the process and make it easier for industry to place the cell towers, others such as Palos Verdes have chosen to strengthen theirs. See  Palos Verdes, California Wireless Technology Facilities Ordinance June 2017.  Unfortunately, 13 states 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, oversight and the amount a city can charge the telecommunications company to rent the public utility poles.  13 States Pass Fast Tracking of Small Cell Antenna. California’s Governor Brown vetoed such an effort (SB649) in 2018 leaving the telecommunications industry to individually request permits for cell tower placement in local jurisdictions 

Lack of Transparency, Monitoring or Consideration of Environmental or Health Concerns

Cell tower placement still suffers from 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 close proximity to cell tower radiation.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits discussion of environmental concerns and possibly health concerns in placement of cell towers, despite growing awareness and scientific confirmation of the potential health effects from near exposure to cell tower radiation and all radiofrequency wireless devices.

Verizon and other Cell phone companies have challenged cities who deny applications based on health or public safety stating they have to supply substantial evidence.


A European Parliamentary Resolution states that wireless radiation emissions 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

My Street My Choice

A new website has surfaced that has information on how to fight cell towers in your neighborhood. A Neighborhood Survial Guide: My Street My Choice  My Street My Choice

Appealing Cell Tower Sites

Citizens have become more aware of how to file and appeal cell towers. In Palo Alto of an appeal process can be made for cell towers.

Here is a City of Palo Alto letter from Planning and Community Environment to a citizen regarding proposal of Verizon for Cluster 1 antenna. March 26, 2018.Tier 3 Wireless Communications Facility Permit


Austin Sues Texas Over Law Streamlining Cell Towers

Texas passed a cell tower 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 it is commonly thought that there is no ability to argue health or environmental effects as a reason to reject a cell tower (Telecommunications Act of 1996).  Some argue that environmental concerns not health concerns are the problem. In San Diego planners in 2015 opposed the cell towers in residential neighborhoods  not on health grounds. They stated “Cooper made a motion to deny the cell tower for reasons that included it is a commercial, industrial application in a residential area, is along a scenic highway, exceeds the county height limit and has potential to decrease property values.”

In Georgia a Supreme Court Ruling in 2015 highlighted the need for cities to provide in a timely explanation for denial. Supreme Court Tells Cities to Explain a Cell Tower Denial in Timely Fashion.

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

In 2018 EMF Safety Network has obtained legal advice regarding how local governments can oppose cell towers. There letter is  “applicable to all local governments in California outlining the scope of authority of a city under existing state and federal law to deny small cell wireless applications in the public rights of way (PROW).” or  B B and K Letter regarding Local Authority Over Wireless Facilities in Public Rights of Way.   They have also posted a webpage for citizens to help fight antennas in their neighborhoods.

In a 2015  legal article,  Cell Tower Zoning and Placement: Navigating Recent FCC Changes, Cell Tower Zoning: Navigating Recent FCC Changes, National Business Institute Teleconference attorneys thoroughly discuss cities roles and responsibilities with regards to FCC changes in the laws and what cities can do to oppose cell tower placement.

Ordinances and arguments cities and citizens have used as reasons to oppose cell towers include provisions about placement in residential or scenic areas. These include:

  • Requirements for specific set backs from  homes
  • Commercial/ industrial application in a residential zone
  • Historic preservation considerations
  • Placement along a scenic road
  • Aesthetic requirements
  • Exceeds county height limit
  • Potential to decrease property values
  • Monitoring requirements for radio frequency radiation levels
  • Placement of cellular communication equipment that is only currently commercially available and specifically not for planned or future equipment
  • Placement of some equipment underground
  • Requirements and limits on power density radiation levels that can be broadcast from the equipment.
  • Significant Gap in Coverage: On a Federal level significant gap needs to be shown to permit cell towers. Citizens can take their own measurements if done in a valid manner. See  Santa Rosa Fights Cell Tower Placement.

5G and Small Cell Information Fact Sheets for Printing

Environmental Health Trust has created information sheets on 5G and Small Cells  that have valuable information and can be shared with policy makers, community leaders and others.

US Factsheet on 5G and Small Cells in Color With Hyperlinks

US Factsheet on 5G and Small Cells in Black and White For Printing

International Factsheet on 5G and Small Cells in Color With Hyperlinks

International Factsheet on 5G and Small Cells in Black and White

In additon, see also a list of scientific letters on small cells at this link.


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 Patrick 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 April 17, 2018

Danville Danville Residents Express Radiation Concerns Over Building of Small Cell Towers   New rules are being proposed for Danville that “would exempt small cells from land use permit and the associated submittal requirements.”  Danville Commission New Cell Tower Fast Tracking Permitting Rules Proposed

Hillsborough Hillsborough Residents fight Cell Towers

Monterey  Monterey Vista Residents Concerned About New Cell Technology

Napa  Napa Valley Decides Plain Cell Tower Looks Better Than Fake Pines

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

ConsumerWatch: 5G Cellphone Towers Signal Renewed Concerns Over    Impacts On Health. CBS News Jan 25, 2018

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

Sebastopol Commentary: Cell Tower Moratorium Needed. March 7, 2018

Sonoma EMF Network Files Lawsuit in Sebastopol January 2018

Santa Rosa New Verizon antennas generate unwelcome buzz in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa Citizens Fight Back at a City Council meeting January 30, 2018

Residents point out among other things, that there is no significant gap in coverage and showed a video near each proposed tower demonstrating full cell phone coverage.  They argue no new cell towers are needed.  5G is not yet developed and these will be 3G and 4G towers in residential areas adjacent to homes.

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. 

Also a new site has listed another resource for citizens

A Neighborhood Survival Guide for

Cell Tower Siting:

My Street My Choice


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.”