Local Matter Or Federal Case? The Network Of Cell Tower Regulation In California By Arthur F. Coon and Sean Marciniak*

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I. INTRODUCTION.

Few planning and zoning decisions generate more controversy than the placement of cellular phone antennas. If the proposed site lies near a residential area, neighbors often will organize for purposes of challenging the proposal and, more often than not, they are sophisticated. In the City of San Francisco, one resident successfully challenged the placement of a tower after he switched his mobile device into “field test” mode, systematically recorded his carrier’s signal strength in the vicinity, demonstrated signal strength was good to excellent in most of the area, and thereby convinced the City that his carrier did not need another tower.

These contests will continue to grow in complexity and in number. Population growth means more users, and more users will sustain demand for more towers. Moreover, the newest technology that is capable of handling the many functions that consumers now demand and expect — pictures, movies, video conferencing — utilizes higher frequencies, which translates into smaller coverage areas. Thus, more towers will prove necessary to serve the existing user population.

Numerous questions surface in this type of land use decision. To what extent may a local city or county regulate the process? What are the bounds of its discretion? What is an agency to make of community concerns about electromagnetic energy associated with an antenna? The issues that emerge in siting cell phone antennas are among the many that the federal government has sought to address through regulation. And the government has been attempting to perfect the regulation of telecommunications for some time.

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