Federal Cell Tower Zoning

Zoning Practice — August 2011

By John Pestle


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Congress first became involved with cell tower zoning with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which added provisions entitled "Preservation of Local zoning Authority" (47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)) to the principal federal telecommunications statute, the Communications Act of 1934. As interpreted by the courts, the Act does not affect many or most substantive provisions of local zoning law. However, it does impose procedural and administrative requirements that are unique to cell tower zoning.

it is on these requirements where cell phone companies have been most successful in claims against local governments for violations of the Act. The stakes are high for planners and public officials because, generally, the remedy imposed by federal courts for violations of the Act is an order approving a zoning application "as applied for" without any of the restrictions that might ordinarily have been imposed in the public interest during the zoning process.

This issue of Zoning Practice summarizes key points about the Federal Telecommunications Act, explains FCC's time limits for local review of cell tower proposals, and suggests development review practices to help local jurisdictions steer clear of legal pitfalls.


Page Count
Date Published
Aug. 1, 2011
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American Planning Association

About the Author

John Pestle