AT&T has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Joseph and its city council for twice denying an application for a cell tower along Interstate 29 near a northeast neighborhood.
The saga began at the start of 2021. Although both the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments and the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a permit for the cell tower, the city council denied it the first time in July.
The city claimed AT&T’s application failed to show the tower could not be built as a designed support structure, was not designed to maximally reduce visual degradation or conceal the tower, that AT&T did not consider alternative designs and that the tower would affect the regular permitted uses of the residentially zoned district.
With no other options at the city level, AT&T has filed a federal lawsuit.
“We have tried for several months to work with the City of St. Joseph to improve existing services and to provide additional services for our customers there, including first responders,” AT&T said in a statement. “We remain willing to work with the city, but we had to take this step to move this project forward.”
AT&T’s complaint in the lawsuit states that the city’s denial of the application was not based on substantial evidence and violated federal and state laws.
“Because of the zoning laws, it seemed clear that it wouldn’t qualify to be put in here, but (the city) didn’t want to get sued,” said Everet Hoffman, a resident of the neighborhood where AT&T has requested to place the tower. “Well, it looks like they get the best of both worlds.”
AT&T’s first argument is that the city failed to comply with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law requires local government to have substantial evidence to deny a request. AT&T said, “There is no evidence, much less substantial evidence, supporting denial of the revised application.”
The Telecommunications Act also states that the local government “shall not prohibit the provision of personal wireless service.” AT&T believes the city is keeping it from filling a gap in coverage.
The state of Missouri has its own law regarding telecommunication towers — the Missouri Siting Act. It states that local governments can’t evaluate an application based on service, other potential locations or impose unreasonable appearance requirements.
In its complaint, AT&T said the city violated the latter.
“The requirement placed on AT&T to either shrink the tower or design a 175-foot tall structure to blend in with single-family homes and 40-foot tall trees is unreasonable and constitutes an arbitrary appearance regulation,” AT&T said in its complaint.
AT&T is asking the United States District Court for the Western District Court of Missouri to reverse the city’s decision and authorize AT&T to install its cell tower.
“When council denied the application the first time around, I think it was a relief for many of the people who live in the neighborhood that felt that they were going to be impacted by the tower,” said City Councilman Brian Myers. “Now it looks like they might have to start this process over again, depending on how far it goes with the federal lawsuit.”
The process has taken a toll on the residents of the neighborhood.
“We’re all kind of tired of it, obviously,” Hoffman said. “But then just who knows how long this will play out.”
The city is hiring an outside law firm — an expense that falls on the shoulders of taxpayers.
“I understand some people’s concerns about well, ‘How come I should pay for the defense or whatever,’” Hoffman said. “But I think it’s a bigger issue of really, does zoning laws have any meaning or not for companies like this?”