AT&T sues Monroe County over cell tower

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The Republic-Times confirmed Thursday that AT&T is suing the Monroe County Zoning Board and the Monroe County Commissioners for “unlawful denial of a wireless communications facility siting request.”  

Filed Dec. 10, the lawsuit is in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois because AT&T’s allegations include that those governing bodies violated the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.

AT&T first brought the proposal to build an approximately 155-foot-tall monopole structure with a blinking red light at its apex at 1332 Valmeyer Road in Columbia in 2019. It planned to lease land from Advantage Self-Storage for that structure. 

After several nearby residents complained the tower would be an eyesore that would decrease property values, the county board decided last August to move the matter back to the zoning board. 

In September, the zoning board tied 2-2, with one member abstaining due to a relationship with a nearby resident, on whether to allow the proposed tower. Since it did not pass, those plans were nixed. 

Monroe County Zoning Administrator Chris Voelker said at that the issue came down to an interpretation of county zoning code. 

“It says no public office or principal repair or storage facility shall be maintained in connection with the site,” he told the Republic-Times. “My interpretation is the site is the whole parcel, and there is a storage facility there. (AT&T’s) interpretation is the site is just the little site that they’re leasing. My opinion is the code says you can’t have a cell tower and a storage facility on the same site.” 

The county knew AT&T could seek recourse by suing over the matter, and that is what it did. 

The lawsuit has four counts. 

In the first count, AT&T argues the 1996 act requires state and local decisions denying requests to place facilities like cell towers to “be supported by substantial evidence in a written record,” and Monroe County did not meet that criterion. 

“The record does not contain substantial evidence to justify the decision issued by the zoning board,” the suit, filed by attorney Luke Maher of St. Louis, alleges. “In that regard, there is no evidence, much less substantial evidence in a written record, that AT&T would be maintaining a storage facility ‘in connection with’ the site, as the storage facility is located elsewhere on the parcel containing the site has no commercial or operational relationship with AT&T’s facility.” 

AT&T also claims the county board and zoning board were “erroneous” in their interpretation of county ordinances and contradicted state and federal law in their interpretation. 

Also citing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, AT&T claims the county effectively prohibited it from remedying “significant service deficiencies,” which the lawsuit says the act requires local authorities to allow. 

The county recommended AT&T select another site, but it countered that all other options are “infeasible.” 

AT&T similarly argued the county’s improper interpretation of its ordinances resulted in a violation of the Illinois Counties Code that limits the standards a county can use to OK a telecommunication carrier’s application. 

“The county’s interpretation of its ordinance effectively prohibits telecommunications carriers from installing wireless towers on a substantial amount of commercial properties, which is the very type of property that the Illinois Counties Code explicitly prefers for tower installations,” AT&T claims in the lawsuit. 

The company is asking the court expedite review of the claim, declare the county’s decisions to be in violation of the law, and require Monroe County allow for the application and installation of the cell tower. 

In their Jan. 29 response on behalf of the county, Monroe County State’s Attorney Lucas Liefer and Patrick Hewson of Gilbert, Huffman, Prosser, Hewson and Barke, Ltd., give a paragraph-by-paragraph response to the initial lawsuit. 

The responses include denying the allegations, agreeing to certain stipulating of fact, demanding proof of allegations, and stating the county lacks information needed to form an opinion.

Most importantly, Monroe County denies that its decision was based on an erroneous interpretation of ordinances, not based on substantial evidence in written record and not an improper application of the county’s ordinance. It also denies that there is no evidence in the written record and that the decision served as an effective prohibition on the tower. 

The county is seeking the court to enter an order with the appropriate findings and deny AT&T’s requests. 

The latest development in the case is that Chief U.S. District Judge Nancy Rosentengel gave an order April 16 governing how confidential information as part of the lawsuit would be disclosed. 

That was a stipulated protective order that the county consented to the entry of. 

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