A federal appeals court reversed itself Thursday and said cities and counties can regulate the location and appearance of wireless towers and poles, a ruling that could revive a dormant San Francisco ordinance.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld San Diego County’s limits on the placement, size and design of towers and poles that are needed for companies to provide cell phone service and wireless Internet connections. The court also voted 11-0 to discard a standard it had established in 2001 that barred local governments from adopting any restrictions that “may have the effect of prohibiting” wireless services.
Federal courts in the nine-state circuit have relied on the 2001 ruling to overturn restrictions on telecommunications structures in several communities, including San Francisco and Berkeley. The court said Thursday that it had misinterpreted federal law when it issued the earlier ruling, and that local governments can regulate wireless towers and poles as long as they don’t actually prohibit wireless service within their borders or create a “significant gap in service coverage.”
San Diego County’s 2003 ordinance was intended to keep unsightly structures out of neighborhoods. It required poles to be camouflaged in residential areas, set height limits, required companies to submit a “visual impact analysis,” and allowed a zoning board to deny an application if it was inconsistent with the character of the community. Two courts had overturned the ordinance, based on the 2001 appellate standard, before Thursday’s ruling reinstated it.