Court Expands Local Control Of Wireless, Phone Towers

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Berkeley residents concerned about wireless towers in their neighborhoods got a partial victory Thursday, when a federal appellate court expanded local governments' control over the placement of the towers.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reaffirmed the rights of city and county governments to regulate the appearance and placement of wireless telecommunication towers in their municipalities.

The 2003 suit between the county of San Diego, Sprint Telephony and Pacific Bell Wireless originated after the county sought to regulate towers owned by the two companies.

The court ruled that local governments can regulate wireless towers as long as they are not creating gaps in cell phone and wireless Internet coverage.

Berkeley city officials attempted to regulate the placement of cell phone towers last year but decided against taking any action after they were told they would lose a court battle. They said they thought Thursday's ruling was a good first-step to resolving local controversies.

"It changes the landscape with respect to the standards applicable to wireless towers," said Zach Cowen, acting city attorney.

Berkeley resident Charlotte Shimura, who was an active opponent of the towers that were installed in Berkeley a year ago, said she thought the recent ruling gave Berkeley tools to question the placement of towers.

"Berkeley has bowed to telecommunications companies in the past, despite questions concerning their placement of towers," Shimura said. "This at least will give them some ability to ask questions and be able to plan where the towers go."

But the ruling does not enable local governments to prevent a tower's construction based on residents' concerns about the towers' adverse health effects.

"Ninety-eight percent of all objections to cell towers are from neighbors who are worried about health concerns and the ruling hasn't changed that," said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. "Everyone wants to use their cell phones but no one wants the towers in their back yard."

Wozniak also said that the ruling won't solve controversy over the uneven placement of wireless towers across the city.

He noted that more wireless towers are needed in predominantly younger and lower-income areas of the city, where fewer residents have land lines.

"(Placement) is fairly strongly age and income dependent," Wozniak said. "But some residents think they should be spread evenly throughout the city."

Despite the ruling's shortcomings, Shimura said that she hopes it will enable the city to make better decisions regarding wireless towers in the future.

"I think it'll give the city of Berkeley more power to regulate where they put (towers), and what they look like," she said. "And I think that Berkeley should take up the mantle and use that power."


Contact Anna Widdowson at [email protected]

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