Federal Court Overturns Knoxville City Council Decision, Allows Tower


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The United States District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville has made its decision, and that is to permit a tower in Knoxville, approving a planning commission approval that was appealed by the town’s citizens. The citizens went to the Knoxville City Council, which overturned the planning commission’s decision, ruling in favor of the citizens. T-Mobile South and Branch Towers then took their appeal against the city to the federal level.

In court documents filed July 11, 2016, the court ruled that the city council’s denial of the plaintiffs’ application “is a violation of the effective prohibition of the Telecommunications Act.”

On March 27, 2015, T-Mobile South and Branch Towers asked to install a 150-foot monopole telecommunications tower at 2119 Ridgecrest Drive after T-Mobile’s radio frequency engineers found a “significant gap” in service stretching for 1.5 square miles. The application noted that the tower would be on the interior of a 5.75 acre, heavily wooded lot, connected to Ridgecrest Drive by a 16-foot wide paved road and utility easement. The tower would be suitable for co-location and have a 165-foot setback. 

The plaintiffs saw the Ridgecrest Drive area, which is zoned low density residential, as the most suitable for construction. Prior to the application, they looked at several alternative locations for the tower, including four existing structures. However, either they weren’t tall enough, were too far away to handle the targeted area, or were too close to schools or residences.

In 2002, the planning commission adopted a “Wireless Communications Facilities Plan” to be used as a guide when making decisions on applications for new telecommunications towers, according to the court documents. Part of the plaintiffs’ argument was the that plan’s guidelines are advisory and “adherence to them is not a legal requirement.” While the Ridgecrest Drive area is considered a both a “sensitive area” and “avoidance area,” according to the plan, the review process did include meetings with community members and opinions of property appraisers and consultants.

On August 13, 2015, the planning commission approved the application at its public meeting, to the ire of residents. Property owners then hired an attorney and appealed the decision to the city council on August 26, 2015, which then overturned the decision in September. The plaintiffs argued in federal court that “the denial of their application constitutes an effective prohibition of wireless service in violation of the Telecommunications Act.” They argued that they “demonstrated the existence of a significant gap in the service area and the proposed tower is the least intrusive means to remedy that gap.” After submissions to the plaintiffs’ argument and the consultant’s testimony, the federal court agreed that the plaintiffs met their burden.

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