816 North

October 23, 2013

Judge sides with cities in striking down Missouri laws on cellphone towers

Siding with several Kansas City-area suburbs — including Liberty, Gladstone, Lee’s Summit and Independence — a Missouri judge has struck down two new state laws that limited the ability of local officials to regulate cellphone towers.

Siding with several Kansas City-area suburbs, a Missouri judge has struck down two new state laws that limited the ability of local officials to regulate cellphone towers.

Gov. Jay Nixon and legislative leaders had said the new laws could encourage the expansion of high-speed Internet and wireless telephone service across Missouri by lowering the hurdles that telecommunications companies must clear to add or expand equipment on towers.

Six western Missouri cities — including Liberty, Gladstone, Lee’s Summit and Independence — sued, alleging numerous violations of the state constitution. On Aug. 27, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce blocked the laws from taking effect as scheduled the next day.

In a written order dated last week, Joyce issued a permanent injunction and declared the laws invalid. She said the measures violated constitutional requirements that bills contain only a single subject clearly expressed in their titles and that lawmakers not amend them to change the bills’ original purpose.

Joyce’s ruling didn’t address the merits of local regulations on cellphone towers.

The decision may not be the final word, however. Representatives of cellphone service providers and cities said that the ruling could be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and that lawmakers could revisit the issue next year.

The attorney general’s office, which defends state laws, said that it is reviewing the ruling and has until Dec. 2 to decide whether to appeal.

AT&T, which backed the measures, said in an email that the company is confident the laws will be upheld if appealed and that the limits on local regulations “are good for telecommunications-related investment in Missouri.”

Richard Sheets, deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, said the ruling provides “kind of a reprieve right now,” but he expects lawmakers will try to pass similar legislation next year.

The laws set forth a lengthy list of things that cities, counties and state entities could no longer do when regulating cellphone towers.

They would be barred from evaluating applications based on whether there were other possible locations or whether a company could have added its equipment to an existing tower used by a competitor. They also could not have required companies to remove existing wireless facilities as a condition of building new ones.

Ric Telthorst, president of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, said the new state laws were intended to create uniform rules across scores of local governments.

Sheets said the municipal association had been assured by wireless providers as recently as last year that there were no major problems with how cities were regulating cellphone towers.

“Cities certainly want to deploy broadband, but we want to protect the public interest — the land-use issues, the safety of those towers and (requiring that towers be) located where they protect property values,” Sheets said.

Joyce’s ruling said the two new laws violated the state constitution because their generic titles of “relating to telecommunications” did not encompass everything in the bills. She noted that one bill also contained provisions related to railroad crossings and utility rights of way.

Joyce also said lawmakers had changed the bills’ original purpose through the amendment process.

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