It has been virtually impossible to stop telecommunications companies from placing cell phone towers in residential areas because of federal law, but Pima County officials will look for ways to reject some towers anyway.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed planning staffers to look at code amendments that would require telecommunications companies to prove the necessity of towers in certain locations.
“We can’t just take their word for it,” Supervisor Sharon Bronson said of accepting telecommunications companies’ declarations that new towers must be placed in specific locations to improve cell phone service.
The issue arose from a federal lawsuit against the county by T-Mobile, a subsidiary of the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, over a conditional use permit for a cell tower the company wants to locate in the Picture Rocks area northwest of Tucson.
The county rejected the tower because of its proximity to existing homes and its probable visual impacts to the scenic area. The company sued.
Supervisors and T-Mobile reached a tentative settlement last week allowing T-Mobile to erect the tower at a different location pending later approval of a conditional use permit.
Still, county officials are grasping for a legal means to gain more control over the placement of cell towers.
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibited local jurisdictions from banning cell phone towers outright. It also does not allow communities to ban cell phone towers at specific locations because of public health or safety concerns.
“We can’t consider health effects at all,” Bronson said.
That restriction should be abandoned, Bronson said.
No studies have directly linked long-term exposure to radio frequencies emitted by the towers to negative health effects in humans or animals.
But the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, in 2008 released a report that said not enough study has been done to determine if there are negative health impacts, particularly on children, pregnant women and fetuses.
Supervisor Ann Day said a recent California court ruling “breaks the locks” on the strict interpretation of the telecommunications law and will allow local governments more leeway when considering the pros and cons of where cell towers should be placed.