Jurisdictional Oversight. How Much is Too Much?

Across the nation, permitting departments are treating wireless tower applications as extensive, multi-million-dollar construction projects. Applications that used to take a few months to review can now take up to a year or more because they are viewed through a lens of distrust. Planning departments have a real opportunity to improve permitting outcomes and reduce a growing backlog by applying only the relevant design codes and regulations.

Chris Ply, President and CEO of Engineered Tower Solutions, can remember when the tower engineering industry had a bad name. A rush to deploy earlier generation wireless infrastructure led to damaged relationships between carriers, tower developers, and jurisdictions. Reputations were dented. Many planning departments, in response, started to push back and apply greater jurisdictional oversight than usual to tower permit applications.  Not only were ordinances adopted to discourage the development and deployment of critical wireless networks, but additional engineering hurdles were erected under the guise of public safety.

“They had valid concerns at the time, and our industry learned that long-term relationship buildings with planning and building departments were critical to creating an atmosphere of trust,” Ply explains. “Unfortunately, our industry contributed to the mistrust, and it led directly to the significant tightening of the jurisdictional review process and the emergence of third-party firms to manage compliance.”  

Today’s tower engineering standards are more complete in scope than previous versions. Some industry participants believe that the pendulum has swung the other way, burdening tower owners with conservative engineering methodologies and outcomes. Failures that occur primarily result from events beyond the scope of engineering standards or from significant maintenance problems. But city and municipal planning departments still view tower permit applications with distrust and apply excessive oversight that is no longer necessary.

“Although towers are engineered to a universally strict set of standards, there is a very significant difference in how they are reviewed by different jurisdictions,” Ply continues. “Those jurisdictions that apply the more burdensome processes do not allow permitting to continue forward in a timely fashion because the oversight is beyond what is reasonable. Simple carrier modification permits are often processed in the same as entirely new towers. This frustrates everybody in the process.”

Nobody questions the role or value of jurisdictional oversight. It’s a good thing. Adherence to jurisdictional ordinances and code requirements is critical from a planning and engineering standpoint. But far too often, wireless structures are separated from the norm and treated as if they’re very large, complex, and expensive commercial projects.

According to Ply, the obvious solution to this issue is to improve the relationship between the tower industry and planning jurisdictions everywhere. A key component of this effort will be building trust with permitting officials so that they understand the scope of the projects being presented to them, the engineering involved, and the level of effort required to grant a permit.

“We’re asking planning officials to treat our towers and structures no differently than other applications by applying only the applicable ordinances and codes. Wireless carriers and tower owners will not waste money chasing inappropriate locations that would be impossible to permit,” Ply concludes. “It’s in everyone’s interest to provide jurisdictions with high-quality permit submissions that can pass with as little friction and delay as possible.”