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Five Elements of a Great Wireless Ordinance

By Richard Comi and Phillip C. McKenna, AICP, PCP


In the next several years, wireless sites will more than triple from 300,000 to a staggering one million nationally. Municipal officials should require local review and approval of ALL changes to wireless equipment to maintain control of wireless within their realm.

Count the people you know who aren’t texting, tweeting, or using wireless devices at some point during the day, and it’s obvious why wireless is on the short list of industries thriving in Michigan.

Bucking the effects of the national recession, the wireless industry has exploded in recent years, and that’s nothing compared to what’s in store.
The industry itself predicts that in the next several years its national inventory of wireless sites will more than triple from 300,000 to a staggering one million. Over the coming decade, whether communities benefit from or fall victim to this massive wave of wireless development will depend on how shrewdly they position themselves today.

The key will be putting in place an ordinance that requires wireless applicants to secure proper review of all new or updated wireless equipment and requires the wireless applicant to pay the cost of the review—just as other developers have for years.

High Stakes for Communities

Understandably, many municipal leaders would rather avoid the wireless issue. Their time is limited and even a cursory understanding of the topic requires a time-consuming, complicated, highly technical review of ever-changing data. But when municipal leaders consider wireless applications without fully understanding the technical issues involved, they leave their communities at risk. In some instances they end up with unnecessary, duplicative, and unsightly towers that undermine the character of neighborhoods. In the worst cases, they’ve seen disastrous accidents—involving fires, explosions, and even the collapse of towers.

Carriers’ Advantage To-Date

Yet, despite the high stakes, many communities and their planners issue permits for wireless equipment based almost entirely on the carrier’s own claims of what is necessary, safe, and financially fair. Most of these municipalities would never take such a passive approach to other applications. (For example, few communities take at face value a commercial developer’s claim of a need to build on wetlands.) One result of this practice is that almost universally, communities have set review and inspection fees far below what the wireless carriers should and would pay. As a result, communities are denying themselves the financial resources they need and deserve to pay for the quality expert advice they need to make sound decisions on wireless issues.

Importance of Reviewing Everything Wireless

Because of nearly non-stop capacity, coverage, competition, and technology changes, the wireless carriers are constantly updating facilities. In many cases, these frequent changes leave municipalities uncertain about what exactly the existing inventory of wireless equipment within their boundaries includes. In addition to creating tax assessment issues, this makes it nearly impossible to determine the validity of future claims of need for additional wireless sites and facilities.

For this reason, city and village officials should require local review and approval of ALL changes to wireless equipment to maintain control of wireless within their realm. The ordinance should make clear that the community should be made aware of and have opportunity to review any addition of new equipment or update or modification of existing facilities.

The Key to Smart Leases, Tax Assessment, Buyouts

An accurate inventory of wireless equipment housed within the community is essential for informed interface with the industry on a number of levels, including: wireless leases of city property; tax assessment of wireless equipment; and the evaluation of buyouts of the community’s wireless leases. The municipality cannot wisely negotiate a lease, buyout, or assessment without reasonable knowledge of its inventory, and it cannot have reasonable knowledge of the inventory without monitoring and requiring permits for changes, additions, etc.

Reasons to Work With the Industry

Though managing the wireless issue poses complications, of course the wireless industry also offers many opportunities, including services highly desirable to citizens, an environment attractive to other businesses, and a potential source of non-tax revenue. But even those communities that prefer no wireless development cannot patently refuse to work with the industry.

Federal law supports wireless carriers (though not independent tower companies—an important distinction) as part of the nation’s communication infrastructure. The law compels communities to approve permits for a new facility (and substantial modifications), but only when the carrier can prove a need—that a “substantial gap in coverage” exists. When municipalities lack the expertise to decipher the technical charts and graphs to determine if this standard is truly met (as most do) it is prudent to hire a qualified wireless consultant who can provide this expertise.

The Solution: Wireless Expertise Paid for by the Wireless Applicant

The key is to put in place now regulations that meet the federal requirements while protecting the community and positioning it to share in the industry’s success. The best and most efficient way to do this is for communities to update their current tower and wireless ordinances with two key objectives in mind: retaining the right to review and monitor all additions or updates to the wireless inventory and requiring the applicant to pay the full cost of review (including the hiring of outside expertise) by making a deposit to an escrow account upon filing an application.

With a sound wireless ordinance that reflects these updates, communities can prepare for and share in the prosperity of the wireless age. The good news—especially for communities wrestling with wireless issues—is that if handled correctly, this can all be achieved at no cost to the community. Communities can customize new or even revise old wireless regulations with the industry fronting all costs, as it should.

Checklist for a Sound Wireless Ordinance

A well-crafted wireless ordinance should do the following:

Give Community Control
Place the community in control of all matters related to the siting and construction, of any substantive modification of the tower or (co-located) wireless facility.

Give Precedence to Community’s Needs
Recognize the community’s needs first and as superior to those of the carrier, because without the community’s need for service the carrier has no “need” to provide service.

Limit “Standing” to Wireless Carriers
Wireless carriers should have a seat at the table. But good ordinances should not give the same status to tower companies or others who merely provide a location on which to locate equipment.

Require Co-Location
Require new facilities to be co-located on existing equipment unless it can be proven not to work via alternatives backed by modeling information used for preparation maps.

Have Carriers Pay the Tab
Require applicants to place in escrow a deposit for the hiring of an expert who brings the technical capability necessary to review any wireless application. Because the carrier benefits from the permit, it should bear this cost, not taxpayers.


Richard Comi is the co-founder of the Center for Municipal Solutions, a national consulting firm exclusively serving local governments. He is a regular speaker to local governmental organizations on the state and local levels and has been published in various local government organizations’ publications. Visit the Center’s website at

Phillip C. McKenna, AICP, PCP is the president of McKenna Associates community planning and municipal services consulting firm. McKenna Associates provides a range of planning and zoning services to communities across the Midwest. Phil McKenna was named Outstanding Professional Planner by the Michigan Association of Planning. Visit McKenna’s website at



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