Can You See Me Now? The Struggle Between Cellular Towers and NIMBY

Comment By: Camille Rorer; originally appearing in JNREL Vol. 19, No.2

Abstract By: Bryan Henley, Staff Member

Cellular telephones, like most modern conveniences, are generally regarded as being beneficial to society. Much like sewage treatment and the production of sausages, most people want them to exist without being exposed to the unseemly processes and facilities that provide them. However, the inner workings that enable cellular telephones cannot be sequestered or buried beneath the pavement because those systems take the form of radio transmission towers. Instead, cell towers must typically be in an open area (and thus visible) and situated in an overlapping grid that covers all places where a person would want to make a telephone call. That's everywhere!

This puts the populace surrounding a potential site in a position of wanting a tower to exist, just not wanting it there. This is the NIMBY, or "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" obstacle. NIMBYs are groups of citizens and organizations that, at least in the context of cellular telephones, oppose the currently proposed site, but would support the tower's existence in another location. While immediately reasonable in any instant debate, this problem only becomes apparent when it is considered that every site would have its own separate NIMBY group in opposition. Left unrestrained, these isolated NIMBYs could comprehensively halt cellular service.

In response to this problem, the federal government amended the Federal Telecommunications Act in 1996. This act declares the ground rules for resolving these conflicting interests. These rules are clearly designed to further the placement of towers, as some reasons for denying a cell tower site are proscribed completely and all others must meet a standard of substantial evidence. This evidentiary standard is the fighting issue in these decisions which are very valuable to both the cellular service providers and the landowners who own the proposed site. In "Can You See Me Now? The Struggle Between Cellular Towers and NIMBY," Camille Rorer explores many such disputes and identifies five of the most common arguments put forth by NIMBYs. Each argument in analyzed from its legal and, when necessary, scientific positions. As our reliance on such communication enhancing devices increases as a society, so will these types of dispute. Through her analysis, Ms. Rorer offers a well considered understanding of what is likely to be a common dilemma.