Tower Siting and the Environment

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The process of developing a new or collocated tower site has changed radically over the past 30 years. Like all things that attract government involvement, the deployment of a tower site is rich in federal, state and local regulations. Much of this is a result of the massive need for mobile telephone carrier towers.



When we think of environmental protection issues, the first things that come to mind relate to the quality of our air, water, ecosystems and wildlife. But consider these issues also include historical buildings or neighborhoods, landmarks (structures, roads and burial grounds), protected lands and national parks.

In 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and in 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted. These laws form the basis of our current broad environmental regulations. The FCC created its own rules and regulations in 1974 as part of the mandate for federal agencies to enforce the NEPA, and amended the rules in 1986, essentially handing most of the approval tasks to state and local governments.

The 1980s was the time when the need for new cell towers began to explode. With much of the regulatory processes handed to the state and local governments combined with the pressure from its citizens, intentional barriers were put up to deter the construction of new towers. The telephone carriers and their representative trade organizations mounted several lawsuits and challenges to these barriers, primarily citing that inability for a particular carrier to provide coverage to a particular area would create an unfair advantage to competing carriers.

Congress later passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. One small part of the new act permitted the FCC to override decisions of state and local governments in matters of tower siting. The environmentalists were not happy with this and wanted to see specific rules that considered the environmental effect of erecting new structures and adding antennas to existing structures -- towers, buildings and other structures.


The answer to this was the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement. The actual title is much longer, but this document defines the review policy, with regard to environmental issues, of all new towers built after 1986 and collocated antennas added to existing structures (towers, buildings, smokestacks, etc.). It requires all new structures and collocations to review their impact within these eight categories:

1. Officially designated wilderness areas
2. Officially designated wildlife preserves
3. Situations that may affect listed threatened or endangered species or critical habitats
4. Situations that may affect historical sites listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places
5. Indian religious sites
6. 100-year floodplains (as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) flood insurance rate maps)
7. Situations that may cause significant change in surface features, such as wetland fills, deforestation or water diversion
8. Proposed use of high-intensity white lights in residential neighborhoods

-- continued on page 2

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