Local California governments would have little to say about cell sites, under bill proposed in Sacramento

10 April 2015 by Steve Blum
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Sometimes, the shot clock means what it says.

What started out as a wide-ranging attempt to rationalise broadband construction policy in California has turned into a narrowly focused effort to drastically limit, if not end completely, the ability of local government to tie up cell tower and site approvals for years on end.

Assembly bill 57, authored by assemblyman Bill Quirk, an East Bay democrat, now reads

The Legislature finds and declares that a wireless telecommunications facility has a significant economic impact in California and is not a municipal affair as that term is used in…the California Constitution, but is a matter of statewide concern.

Specifically, if cities and counties don’t act quickly, applications to build cell sites and towers will, in effect, be automatically approved…

A colocation or siting application for a wireless telecommunications facility…shall be deemed approved if both of the following occur:
(1) The city or county fails to approve or disapprove the application within the time periods established by the Federal Communications Commission…
(2) All public notices regarding the application have been provided consistent with the public notice requirements for the application.

In theory, the FCC has already said that permits not acted on within 60 days will be “deemed approved” and companies can simply start construction work. But, guess what, local governments can go to court and jam it up for as long as it takes the wheels of justice to grind through. Which can be a very long time indeed. Quirk’s bill would pull the legal rug out from under appeals launched by local governments. That’s not to say wireless tower disputes won’t end up in court – this is California, after all – but the deck would be decisively stacked against nimbys.

Cities and counties can disapprove a cell site application, but the grounds for doing so are very limited. Knowing that, some jurisdictions have chosen to put permit requests in the deep freeze. If Quirk’s bill passes, it won’t be open season for mobile broadband companies, but at least the game will be allowed to play on. An assembly committee is due to consider the bill the week after next.