Telecom assault on local zoning should be rejected

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From The Beacon, Summer 2014

The telecommunications industry is at it again, pushing legislation at the State House to preempt virtually all municipal zoning and decision-making over the siting of wireless antennas and equipment in Massachusetts.

These powerful companies have attached legislation to the House version of the Legislature’s economic development bill that would allow telecom giants and third-party tower speculators to place wireless antennas and equipment on nearly any building or structure in any location in any community and override all zoning and any local provision or condition to protect neighborhoods and the public from unsightly and intrusive antennas. The measure envisions no role for the general public and fails to recognize that citizens have a right to basic zoning protections that guarantee accountability on the part of developers.

House members approved this industry-backed language by a voice vote during debate on a pile of nearly 200 amendments to the bill. The Senate passed its version of the economic development measure two weeks later, on July 1, and did not include any language regarding the siting of wireless antennas. House and Senate leaders are now negotiating over the issue in a special conference committee and will develop a final compromise bill within days.

Legislators here in Massachusetts are being pressured by major telecom corporations to fast-track this assault on local zoning even though the Federal Communications Commission is on the verge of announcing uniform nationwide rules on the siting of wireless antennas. Lawmakers should not consider any legislation until after the FCC acts.

Two years ago, Congress and the president enacted “The Spectrum Act” to implement a nationwide uniform process for the collocation of wireless antennas and equipment, and at this moment the FCC is promulgating the final regulations that will govern the build-out of the wireless telecommunications network. The FCC has received detailed input from all stakeholders in this process, including industry and municipal organizations. It is expected that the FCC will issue its final rules before the end of the year.

The telecom industry is jumping to Massachusetts and other states to win a complete override of local zoning when the FCC is about to issue its decision, even though all indications are that the FCC will give industry its top goal of a time-limited expedited application process. Why? The answer is clear: The FCC may give deference to local zoning rules and allow cities and towns to act in the public interest. In particular, the FCC could allow municipalities to have zoning provisions, ordinances and bylaws on height limits, set-back requirements, or the ability to require aesthetic modifications to ensure the antennas and equipment blend in. In effect, the telecom industry wants to preempt all local rules and preempt any FCC provisions to protect municipal authority and public input.

The FCC proceedings will determine national standards on dozens of complex issues related to the build-out of wireless telecommunications networks. These include a nationwide definition of “collocation,” a determination of when the “shot clock” starts in a 90-day siting process, answers on what level of local input and authority can and should be exercised in balancing industry and community needs, how to protect historic districts and properties, how to ensure that public property and rights-of-way are protected, and many other important issues that Massachusetts should not attempt to set in stone before the FCC provides answers and guidance.

But the industry doesn’t want to take any chances, and is trying to get our state Legislature to write different rules and definitions that are friendly to their companies.

The prudent course of action is for the Legislature to wait until the FCC issues its ruling later this year before advancing any wireless siting legislation. Otherwise, the Legislature is almost sure to pass a law that undermines local authority at the same time the federal government recognizes the importance of a strong and effective local role in protecting neighborhoods and communities. Citizens in Massachusetts would then be saddled with an industry-dominated siting process, while cities and towns all across America (except Massachusetts) would have a greater say in how the build-out of antennas affects their neighborhoods.

Cities and towns are doing a good job permitting and approving expansions and upgrades to wireless telecommunications services throughout the state for the benefit of consumers, but the expansion simply cannot come at the expense of quality of life for residents.

The Legislature should preserve and protect local authority to make important zoning and siting decisions, so that cities and towns can act on behalf of the public to protect the quality of life in our neighborhoods and communities.

At the very least, Beacon Hill should wait and see what the FCC develops before advancing any legislation. In the meantime, we ask our lawmakers to reject the telecom industry’s pressure to pass their “race-to-the-bottom” proposal.