Telecommunications Act of 1996

Due to the proliferation of advanced mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, wireless service providers anticipate a significant increase in data traffic over their networks in the next few years.  As a result, mobile operators have been compelled to find new ways to increase their network capacity, provide better coverage and reduce network congestion. One solution has been to create a new small cell network consisting of a series of small low-powered antennas – sometimes called nodes – that are typically attached to existing utility poles or streetlights located in the public right of way. In many municipalities, however, service providers and their contractors are facing strong opposition from elected officials and residents who have expressed concerns about the impacts from this new equipment.

One of the more recent battles is currently taking place in the Westchester County community of Rye, where an application by Crown Castle NG East LLC (“Crown Castle”) has already been the subject of two lawsuits, one which resulted in a ruling that delays associated with environmental review pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) do not violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“TCA”).

The City of Rye (“City”) entered into a right of way use agreement (“RUA”) with NextG Networks of NY, Inc. (“NextG”) on February 17, 2011. Pursuant to the RUA, NextG was authorized to install and operate a form of small cell technology, known as distributed antennae systems (“DAS”), to expand existing wireless telephone services and coverage by installing its equipment within the public right of way (“ROW”), mostly on pre-existing utility poles. Between 2011 and 2015, NextG installed nine nodes within the public ROW on existing utility poles.

The RUA precluded NextG from assigning or transferring its rights under the agreement, except in limited circumstances and only with prior written notice of its intent to make such a transfer. Thereafter, on April 10, 2012, NextG became a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of Crown Castle International Corp., but NextG did not notify the City of its transfer of rights under the RUA until May 25, 2012.

In December of 2015, in some unspecified manner, Crown Castle advised the City of its intent to install equipment cabinets within the public ROW that are dimensionally larger than the pre-existing cabinets. The request was memorialized in a letter from Crown Castle to the City Council on April 8, 2016. In a subsequent letter, dated June 24, 2016, Crown Castle requested that the City Council adopt a resolution confirming that its application to install larger equipment cabinets was a Type II action under SEQRA or, alternatively, adopt a SEQRA “negative declaration” at its next public meeting.

Public hearings were held on Crown Castle’s application in July, August, and October of 2016 and in April of 2017. At the October 5, 2016 public hearing, the City Council declared its intention to as serve as lead agency for purposes of reviewing Crown Castle’s application under SEQRA. During the April 22, 2017 public hearing, the City Council issued a “positive declaration” for the proposed project under SEQRA. It also indicated that, in the event that the application is determined to be exempt from SEQRA, the application should be denied.

A positive declaration is a determination that an action may result in one or more significant environmental impacts and requires a comprehensive environmental review of the action, including the preparation and review of an environmental impact statement (“EIS”), before an agency decision may be made regarding the action. The SEQRA regulations contain mandatory minimum and maximum time periods associated with the processing of EISs that necessarily postpones a lead agency’s final decision until after the SEQRA process has been completed. A negative declaration is a determination by the lead agency that an action will not result in a significant adverse environmental impact and consequently no EIS will be prepared.

Following the City Council’s adoption of a positive declaration, Crown Castle commenced an action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, entitled Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 17 CV 3535 (E.D.N.Y., December 8, 2017), alleging that the City and City Council violated the RUA and the TCA.  Crown Castle also alleged claims under Article 78 of the CPLR and the New York State Transportation Corporations Law (“TCL”). The City moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that Crown Castle failed to state a TCA claim.

Section 253(a) of the TCA provides that “no State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.” Section 253(c) further provides that “nothing in this section affects the authority of a . . . local government to manage the public rights-of-way . . . on a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory basis.” Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) states that “any decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence in a written record.”

With respect Crown Castle’s claim that the City’s 18-month delay in providing a decision on its application amounted to a prohibition of telecommunications services under TCA § 253(a), the Court disagreed and held that the City’s review process, including the associated SEQRA review, was not a “legal requirement” prohibited under TCA § 253(a). It also noted that the TCA does not render a SEQRA review or any delays associated with that review a violation of federal law.

In support of its holding, the Court cited the District Court’s decision in New York SMSA Ltd. P’Ship v. Town of Riverhead Town Board, 118 F.Supp.2d 333 (E.D.N.Y. 2000), aff’d, 45 Fed App’x. 24 (2d Cir. 2002), where the court noted that “a positive SEQRA declaration necessarily delays a final decision” and that “this court will not hold that a local government’s invocation of that statute is precluded because of the existence of the TCA.” The Court also held that municipal review alone cannot be a proscribed barrier to entry under Section 253(a) because the TCA § 332 requirement for “substantial evidence” necessitates a thorough review in order to justify the denial of a request to place, construct, or modify wireless facilities.

The Court also rejected Crown’s other TCA claims. It found that TCA § 253(c) does not create a stand-alone violation of the TCA because it is a safe harbor for municipalities or a “savings clause” that carves out liability rather than imposes it. The Court also found that because the City’s “denial” was hypothetical, it was neither a “regulation” nor a “decision” for purposes of stating a TCA § 332(c)(7)(B) claim. Moreover, the Court noted that the purported “denial” was not a final decision for Section 332 because a SEQRA positive declaration is not a final agency decision that is reviewable under New York law. Accordingly, the City’s motion to dismiss was granted.

The dispute continued in the Westchester County Supreme Court in Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 50310/18 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co., August 20, 2018), wherein Crown Castle sought to have its state law claims adjudicated. However, the Court never addressed the merits of the state law claims because it concluded that Crown Castle was not a proper assignee or transferee under the RUA and, therefore, did not have standing to maintain the proceeding.

While these two decisions represent significant victories for the City of Rye and its residents, both decisions were made on procedural grounds, and neither addressed the merits of Crown Castle’s federal and state law claims. Communities throughout New York and elsewhere that have been presented with applications for the installation of small cell nodes will undoubtedly be watching closely to see how Crown Castle’s battle with the City of Rye ultimately plays out.

If you have any questions concerning the subject matter of this post, please contact Anthony at aguardino@farrellfritz.com.