Cell Tower Zoning and Permitting


Unless the underlying jurisdiction does not require any zoning at all, most cell towers must be approved by the local land use office prior to being built. In some cases, this is as easy as applying for a building permit from the building permit office. Many jurisdictions have created more stringent regulations on the placement of cell towers.


Zoning is the industry term for the process of acquiring all required permits for a communication tower. While in some areas this process may include public hearings and notice to all neighbors, in many cases it does not. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted in the US, local jurisdictions are not allowed to “prohibit” the placement of communication towers. They are allowed to regulate how and where the towers are placed as long as the overall impact is not to preclude wireless service.

As a result, many jurisdictions (particularly urban and suburban) have enacted cell tower ordinances that prescribe how cell towers can be built and sited. Because every jurisdiction is different, it might be easier to discuss some common threads between many ordinances.

Many ordinances:

  • Prohibit towers in residential zoning
  • Encourage placement of towers in industrial and commercial zones
  • Limit the height of the tower to that needed by the wireless carrier
  • Require Security Fencing
  • Require a “setback” from adjacent property lines – typically equal to one foot for every foot of height of the tower (A 100′ tower requires at least a 200′ by 200′ parcel)
  • Require that the cell tower is being built for a licensed wireless carrier, i.e., Cingular, Verizon, Nextel, Sprint, AT&T, Alltel, T-Mobile
  • Mandate that new towers are not built until it is demonstrated that no existing towers or structures (such as rooftops, water towers) can accommodate the wireless carrier’s equipment
  • Many times there are notice requirements where neighbors to the property are notified of the proposed tower.

There may also be public hearings required where the public is allowed to comment on the tower. Wireless carriers can spend $40,000 on a zoning hearing to get approval. The process can take upwards of 2 years in some jurisdictions, and there is no guarantee that approval will be granted.


You might see the term “NIMBY” in some articles in the paper or hear it from industry veterans. It refers to individuals who do not want a tower in their backyard—“Not In My Back Yard.” NIMBYs show up at zoning hearings to oppose the placement of a communication tower. They often claim that there are significant health risks posed by towers. Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local jurisdictions from denying a tower application on the basis that it is “unhealthy.” As long as the tower meets FCC regulations and guidelines, it is presumed to be safe.

Health is not the only manner in which people oppose towers. They also state that the tower is going to depreciate their home values. There are many different schools of thought on the impact of a cell tower on property values. The truth is that both wireless carriers and private landowners have created studies that show no change in value (carrier) or significant decreases in value (landowner).

Lastly, aesthetic impact of the tower is often sited as a reason for opposing the tower. The reality is that many people cannot correctly name the closest tower to their house. While a tower may be visible initially, it will rarely be noticeable once it has been built for a while. There are numerous ways of “stealthing” a communication tower which include fake trees, fake cactus, fake bell towers, fake flagpoles, etc. See the gallery for some “stealth” installations that we find interesting.

What you can do

Your community planners are interested in hearing your opinion. They value both sides of the cell tower argument; they try to balance the placement of a structure that the community may need versus the desires of the majority of its citizens who don’t want the tower (but desire the service it provides). Contact your local planners. Contact the wireless providers. Or review our webpages on the Future of Wireless and how your community might use Cell Tower Development Standards to better regulate the placement of towers.