Source: Sherman Publications

No time to waste
Oxford Twp. looks to amend zoning ord. to keep local control over new cell towers

by CJ Carnacchio

March 13, 2013

In order to ensure local control is not lost and everything’s in compliance with state law, Oxford Township is looking to modify its zoning ordinance as it pertains to wireless communications facilities such as cell towers.

Last year, the state amended the Zoning Enabling Act to put a 90-day time limit on the approval or denial of new wireless communication structures. There’s also a 60-day window to rule on modifications to an existing structure.

If the local municipality doesn’t make a decision within those designated time periods, then the structure is automatically considered approved.

When asked for his opinion of the new time constraints, township planner Brian Oppmann, an associate with the Ann Arbor-based Carlisle/Wortman Associates, Inc., said, “I think it can be done, but I don’t think it’s a very smart idea. I just think it’s not enough time.”

“Cell towers require a lot of special considerations and I think it’s very difficult to do it within 60 to 90 days,” he continued. “Right now, I’m going through one in another community and they’re having to hold special meetings just to keep it within the 90-day time frame.”

If a cell tower applicant provides all the necessary information and demonstrates the need for it, then, according to Oppmann, “it should be a very quick process.”

“But if the applicant drags their feet or is difficult to work with, then ultimately, the community’s going to end up denying it and that could pose legal challenges down the road,” he said.

Thanks to changes in the federal Telecommunications Act, a municipality can be sued by a wireless company for denying a cell tower on the basis that it’s “not allowing adequate coverage,” according to Oppmann.

“It’s extremely difficult to deny those applications,” he said.

As it stands right now, meeting the state’s strict time limit could be difficult for Oxford Township if special land use approval is required.

“Our ordinance basically says that if you have a new (wireless communications) structure, it’s got to go through (the) special land use (process) if it’s not in certain (zoning) districts,” Oppmann said.

“In the industrial and commercial areas, it’s a permitted use. But otherwise, it’s a special land use anywhere else in the township.”

Oppmann explained that normally, the township “strives” to have projects go through the site plan approval process within 45 days.

“That’s a policy that the township’s had in effect for a while now,” he said.

But that only works if the applicant, the township and the consultants who review the plans are “all on the same page and the ordinances are being followed,” Oppmann noted.

Getting a new cell tower approved can be quite different than getting a commercial or residential structure okayed.

“Typically, when you have a new cell tower, in my experience, it takes a couple reviews, there’s public (comment) involved – usually the process takes longer,” Oppmann said.

Whether or not there’s any public opposition is a big factor.

“When there’s a potential to have a tower in someone’s backyard or in a neighborhood, usually those things get contentious,” Oppmann said. “It can take three to six months usually if we’re talking about a cell tower going into a residential area because you’re going to have a lot of neighbors fighting it. That can usually delay the process.”

But Oppmann believes opposition to cell towers isn’t as fervent as it used to be.

“Ten years ago, people didn’t want cell towers in their backyard because they didn’t want to look at them,” he said. “Well, nowadays with people not even having (land lines) anymore and everyone using cell phones in their house (as) home phones, I think the tide’s changed a lot in the industry. People want coverage, period, whether it’s (in) their car or house.”

“There’s always going to be those few people who are opposed to it, but more likely than not, the majority of people want the coverage now,” Oppmann added.

In order to make Oxford’s approval process fit within the state’s mandated 90-day time frame, Oppmann indicated he’s going to recommend preliminary and final site plan approval, along with special land use approval, all be done at the same time as opposed to having them dealt with over the course of two or more separate meetings.

“That’s where there can be some lag time – between preliminary and final approvals,” he said. “Usually with cell towers, there’s enough information they can do it all in one fell swoop.”

In some communities, special land uses have to be approved by the township board. But that’s not the case in Oxford, where the planning commission approves them.

“If we had the township board involved with special land uses on cell towers, we would have to shorten up the requirements a lot in the ordinance to make this work,” Oppmann said. “The way meeting dates fall, you can waste 14 to 21 days just waiting for a meeting.”

Although the township’s ordinance language will be modified to accommodate both time limits, Oppmann isn’t too worried about the 60-day window for modifications to existing wireless communications structures.

Approval to add more equipment or upgrade existing equipment can all be handled administratively, “so there’s really no issue there,” he said.