A Missouri judge has struck down two new laws that limited the ability of local officials to regulate cellphone towers, ruling that lawmakers violated procedural requirements when passing the measures.
The decision barring the laws from being enforced may not be the final word. Representatives of cellphone service providers and cities said Tuesday that the ruling could be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and that lawmakers could revisit the issue next year.
Gov. Jay Nixon and legislative leaders had said the new laws could encourage the expansion of high-speed Internet and wireless telephone service across Missouri by lowering the hurdles that telecommunications companies must clear to add or expand equipment on towers.
Six western Missouri cities sued, alleging numerous violations of the state constitution. Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce issued a preliminary injunction on Aug. 27 that blocked the laws from taking effect as scheduled the next day.
In a written order dated last Thursday, Joyce issued a permanent injunction and declared the laws invalid. She said the measures violated constitutional requirements that bills contain only a single subject clearly expressed in their titles and that lawmakers not amend them to changes the bills' original purpose.
The attorney general's office, which defends state laws, said Tuesday that it is reviewing the ruling and has until Dec. 2 to decide whether to appeal.
AT&T, which backed the measures, said in an email that the company is confident the laws will be upheld if appealed and that the limits on local regulations "are good for telecommunications-related investment in Missouri."
Richard Sheets, the deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, said the ruling provides "kind of a reprieve right now" but that he expects lawmakers will try to pass similar legislation during their annual session that starts in January.
The laws set forth a lengthy list of things that cities, counties and state entities could no longer do when regulating cellphone towers. They would be barred from evaluating applications for cellphone towers based on whether there were other possible locations or whether a company could have added its equipment to an existing tower used by a competitor. They also could not have required companies to remove existing wireless facilities as a condition of building new ones.
Ric Telthorst, the president of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, said the new state laws were intended to create uniform rules across scores of local governments.
"It's my understanding that (in) some municipalities in the state, the procedure by which they permit towers is somewhat cumbersome and lengthy and unpredictable," he said.
Sheets said the municipal association had been assured by wireless providers as recently as last year that there were no major problems with how cities were regulating cellphone towers.
Page 2 of 2 - "Cities certainly want to deploy broadband, but we want to protect the public interest — the land use issues, the safety of those towers and (requiring that towers be) located where they protect property values," Sheets said.
Joyce's ruling didn't address the merits of local regulations on cellphone towers.
She said the two new laws violated the constitution's single-subject requirement because their generic titles of "relating to telecommunications" did not encompass everything in the bills. She noted that one bill also contained provisions related to railroad crossings and utility right-of-ways. Another bill contained provisions related to cable TV services, which she said are not legally the same as telecommunications.
Joyce also said lawmakers had changed the bills' original purpose through the amendment process.