District Court Finds in Favor of T-Mobile in Zoning Dispute

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In the recent Memorandum and Order issued in the case T-Mobile Northeast LLC v. The Town of Barnstable, the Massachusetts District Court held that the Town of Barnstable Planning Board (“the Planning Board”) had violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“the TCA”) when it denied T-Mobile’s request for a special permit and regulatory agreement that would allow T-Mobile to install and operate wireless equipment in a church steeple for the purpose of improving local cell phone service coverage. The dispute arose after the town had issued T-Mobile a building permit and after the majority of the construction on T-Mobile’s proposed site had already been completed, at which time citizens of Barnstable claimed that the proposed site fell within a geographic area of Cape Cod that is subject to heightened regulatory scrutiny. After several hearings and consideration of evidence submitted by T-Mobile, the Planning Board denied T-Mobile’s request.

The Planning Board claimed that it denied T-Mobile’s request for four reasons, stating that (1) they had concerns about preserving the historical integrity of the church; (2) T-Mobile’s installation of equipment was not necessary to provide adequate coverage in the area; (3) T-Mobile had not submitted any evidence showing the level of coverage that would result if T-Mobile installed the equipment at an alternate site instead; and (4) T-Mobile did not offer sufficient evidence that other potential locations for the equipment were inadequate. Upon review, the District Court found that all four of the stated reasons for the Planning Board’s denial were not supported by “substantial evidence” as required by the TCA. Specifically, (1) the Massachusetts Historical Commission had determined that installation of the equipment would have no adverse effect on the church’s historic properties; (2) the Planning Board misunderstood the evidence submitted by T-Mobile regarding the inadequacy of the existing cell phone coverage in the area; and (3-4) T-Mobile had submitted ample evidence to the Planning Board indicating that the proposed site was the only viable location that would allow T-Mobile to remedy the existing coverage gap. Furthermore, the Planning Board admitted that they could not identify an alternate site for T-Mobile to build on that would adequately remedy the coverage gap. Accordingly, the Court allowed T-Mobile’s motion for summary judgment.


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