U.S. Supreme Rules Against Municipality in Cell Tower Dispute

The Supreme Court recently ruled against a Georgia municipality for failing to provide a timely written decision explaining its reasoning in denying a cell phone tower siting application by T-Mobile, South, LLC (“T-Mobile”).

The City of Roswell’s city council held a public hearing to consider an application by T-Mobile to build a cell phone tower in a residential zoning district. Several members of the council expressed concerns about the tower during the hearing, which ended with the council voting unanimously to deny the application. Two days later, the City’s planning and zoning department notified T-Mobile by letter that the application was denied and that minutes from the public hearing would be made available. Twenty six days later the minutes from the public hearing were published.

T-Mobile filed suit against the City, alleging that the city council’s denial was not supported by substantial evidence in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“Act”). The District Court agreed with T-Mobile, and concluded that the City had violated the Act when it failed to issue a written decision stating the reasons for denying the application. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the requirements of the Act were satisfied because T-Mobile had its own transcript of the city council hearing as well as a written letter stating that the application had been denied, and informing T-Mobile that it could obtain access to the minutes of the hearing. The Eleventh Circuit did not consider the timing of when the City provided its reasons for the denial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered the text of the Act and found a clear intent to require municipalities to provide reasons when they deny cell phone towers applications. The Supreme Court held that municipalities are not required to provide their reasons for denying an application in the denial notice itself, but may state those reasons with sufficient clarity in some other written record – as long as it is issued contemporaneously with the denial. Applying the holding to the facts of this case, the Supreme Court found the City sufficiently provided its reasons in writing and did so in the acceptable form of detailed minutes of the city council hearing. However, because of the twenty six day lag between the denial notice and when the minutes of the public hearing were made available to T-Mobile, the Supreme Court ruled that the City did not comply with its statutory obligations under the Act.
For additional information on cell tower siting applications and land use and zoning matters in general, please contact Amanda Lafferty or John Klesch