By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether cellular phone companies should have to follow township zoning laws when they erect communication towers in nonresidential areas.
If the high court agrees with an appeals court ruling, local governments would have no say in whether or not the tall towers go up in certain areas.
The justices heard a case from Stark County’s Plain Township, in which two cellular companies – AT&T Wireless and Ameritech Wireless – wanted to build a 165-foot tower. The township zoning director obtained an injunction to stop construction because the tower would violate township zoning laws.
The companies appealed the case, arguing that they are public utilities to whom township zoning laws don’t apply. An appeals court agreed, meaning that any wireless communications company could build a tower wherever they pleased, as long as it was outside a city or residential area.
Under Ohio law, public utilities can build structures necessary to do their work – such as electrical towers or telephone poles – without interference from zoning laws, according to Gene Naujock, manager of planning for the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission.
William Brown, attorney for the wireless companies, said that cellular service is widespread enough that it should qualify as a basic utility and thus be able to avoid zoning restrictions.
But Plain Township attorney Scott Piepho said that cellular phone service isn’t as essential to life as traditional utilities, such as natural gas, electricity, or water. He noted that, unlike with most utilities, rates for cellular phone calls are not regulated by the government.
Mr. Naujock said he would oppose letting wireless companies have too much leeway. “You’ve got a tower that’s 85, 100, 125 feet high, and it becomes a pretty visible object intruding into an area,” he said. “They’re not considered essentials for life. They’re bonus services. A community can survive without them.”
Attorneys for both sides agreed that the case would have no impact on zoning restrictions in residential areas. Under current state law, zoning laws can be applied to towers in those areas.
The Supreme Court will issue its ruling next year.