T-Mobile S., LLC v. Roswell

Decision Date14 January 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–975.,13–975.
Citation574 U.S. 293,190 L.Ed.2d 679,135 S.Ct. 808
Parties T–MOBILE SOUTH, LLC, Petitioner v. ROSWELL, GEORGIA.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Ann O'Connell, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting neither party.

Richard A. Carothers, Altoona, PA, for Respondent.

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, David A. Miller, Laura Buckland, Timothy X. Sullivan, John L. Zembruski, Bellevue, WA, Thomas Scott Thompson, Counsel of Record, Peter Karanjia, Daniel P. Reing, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Richard A. Carothers, Counsel of Record, Regina Benton Reid, Carothers & Mitchell, LLC, Buford, GA, for Respondent.

Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides, in relevant part, that " [a]ny decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record." 110 Stat. 151, 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). The question presented is whether, and in what form, localities must provide reasons when they deny telecommunication companies' applications to construct cell phone towers. We hold that localities must provide or make available their reasons, but that those reasons need not appear in the written denial letter or notice provided by the locality. Instead, the locality's reasons may appear in some other written record so long as the reasons are sufficiently clear and are provided or made accessible to the applicant essentially contemporaneously with the written denial letter or notice.

I

In February 2010, petitioner T–Mobile South, LLC, applied to build a new, 108–foot–tall cell phone tower on 2.8 acres of vacant residential property in the city of Roswell, Georgia (City). Roswell's city ordinances require that any cell phone tower proposed for a residential zoning district must take the form of an "alternative tower structure"—an artificial tree, clock tower, steeple, or light pole—that, in the opinion of the city council (City Council or Council), is "compatible with the natural setting and surrounding structures" and that effectively camouflages the tower. Code of Ordinances §§ 21.2.2, 21.2.5(a); see App. 68, 75. In accordance with these provisions, petitioner's application proposed a structure in the shape of an artificial tree or "monopine." Id., at 42.

The City's Planning and Zoning Division reviewed petitioner's application, along with a substantial number of letters and petitions opposing it, and ultimately issued a memorandum to the City Council concluding that the application met all of the requirements set out in the City's ordinances. It recommended that the City Council approve the application on three conditions to which petitioner was prepared to agree.

The City Council then held a 2–hour–long public hearing on April 12, 2010, to consider petitioner's application. Petitioner arranged privately to have the hearing transcribed, and, as discussed below, the City subsequently issued detailed minutes summarizing the proceedings. At the hearing, after the Planning and Zoning Division presented its recommendation and after petitioner's representatives made a presentation in support of the application, a number of residents raised concerns. Among these were concerns that the tower would lack esthetic compatibility, that the technology was outdated and unnecessary, and that the tower would be too tall. Petitioner's representatives responded by reiterating that it had met all of the ordinance's requirements and by providing testimony from a property appraiser that placement of cell phone towers does not reduce property values.

Members of the City Council then commented on the application. One member of the six-person Council was recused, see id., at 111 (hearing transcript); id., at 322 (meeting minutes), leaving five voting members. Member Igleheart said that other carriers had sufficient coverage in the area and that the City did not need to level the playing field for petitioner. Id., at 173–174 (hearing transcript). He also stated that his "[b]ottom line" was that he did not think it was "appropriate for residentially zoned properties to have the cell towers in their location." Id., at 174 (hearing transcript); id., at 338 (meeting minutes). Member Dippolito found it difficult to believe that the tower would not negatively impact the area and doubted that it would be compatible with the natural setting. Id., at 175–176 (hearing transcript); id., at 339 (meeting minutes). Member Wynn expressed concerns about the lack of a backup generator for emergency services, id., at 172 (hearing transcript), and did not think the tower would be "compatible with this area," id., at 176 (hearing transcript); id., at 339 (meeting minutes). Member Orlans said only that he was impressed with the information put together by both sides. Id., at 173 (hearing transcript); id., at 337 (meeting minutes). Finally, Member Price, the liaison to the Planning and Zoning Division, made a motion to deny the application. She said that the tower would be esthetically incompatible with the natural setting, that it would be too tall, and that its proximity to other homes would adversely affect the neighbors and the resale value of their properties. Id., at 176–177 (hearing transcript); id., at 339–340 (meeting minutes). The motion was seconded, and then passed unanimously. Id., at 177 (hearing transcript); id., at 340 (meeting minutes).

Two days later, on April 14, 2010, the Planning and Zoning Division sent a letter to petitioner that said in its entirety:

"Please be advised the City of Roswell Mayor and City Council denied the request from T–Mobile for a 108' mono-pine alternative tower structure during their April 12, 2010 hearing. The minutes from the aforementioned hearing may be obtained from the city clerk. Please contact Sue Creel or Betsy Branch at [phone number].
"If you have any additional questions, please contact me at [phone number]." Id., at 278.

The detailed written minutes of the hearing, however, were not approved and published by the City until 26 days later, on May 10, 2010. See id., at 321–341 (meeting minutes).1

On May 13, 2010, 3 days after the detailed minutes were published—and now 29 days after the City denied petitioner's application—petitioner filed suit in Federal District Court. It alleged that the denial of the application was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and would effectively prohibit the provision of wireless service in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The District Court granted petitioner's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the City had violated the Act when it failed to issue a written decision that stated the reasons for denying petitioner's application. The District Court interpreted the Act to require that a written denial letter or notice describe the reasons for the denial and that those reasons be sufficiently explained to allow a reviewing court to evaluate them against the written record.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed. 731 F.3d 1213 (2013). It explained that, in T–Mobile South, LLC v. Milton, 728 F.3d 1274 (2013), which was decided after the District Court's decision in this case, it had held that "to the extent that the decision must contain grounds or reasons or explanations, it is sufficient if those are contained in a different written document or documents that the applicant is given or has access to." Id., at 1285. The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that the Courts of Appeals had split on that question, and that it had departed from the majority rule. Compare Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems, Inc. v. Todd, 244 F.3d 51, 60 (C.A.1 2001) (requiring that a locality issue a written denial that itself contains a "sufficient explanation of the reasons for the permit denial to allow a reviewing court to evaluate the evidence in the record supporting those reasons"); New Par v. Saginaw, 301 F.3d 390, 395–396 (C.A.6 2002) ; and MetroPCS, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco, 400 F.3d 715, 723 (C.A.9 2005), with AT & T Wireless PCS, Inc. v. City Council of Virginia Beach, 155 F.3d 423, 429 (C.A.4 1998) (holding that written minutes of a meeting and the word "denied" stamped on a letter describing the application were sufficient). Applying its rule to this case, the Eleventh Circuit found that the requirements of 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) were satisfied because petitioner had its own transcript as well as a written letter stating that the application had been denied and informing petitioner that it could obtain access to the minutes of the hearing. 731 F.3d, at 1221. It did not consider when the City provided its written reasons to petitioner.

We granted certiorari, 572 U.S. 1099, 134 S.Ct. 2136, 188 L.Ed.2d 1123 (2014), and now reverse the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit.

II
A

The first question we answer is whether the statute requires localities to provide reasons when they deny applications to build cell phone towers. We answer that question in the affirmative.

Our conclusion follows from the provisions of the Telecommunications Act. The Act generally preserves "the traditional authority of state and local governments to regulate the location, construction, and modification" of wireless communications facilities like cell phone towers, but imposes "specific limitations" on that authority. Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 115, 125 S.Ct. 1453, 161 L.Ed.2d 316 (2005) ; see § 332(c)(7)(B). One of those limitations is that any decision to deny a request to build a tower "shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record." § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). Another is that parties adversely affected by a...

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