United States Supreme Court
January 15, 2015
2015 US Lexis 612 (Click for text of Opinion)
The United States Supreme Court interpreted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, holding that a local government government must state its reasons for denying an application to build a cell tower. The Act provides that a cell tower permit may be denied only if the denial supported by substantial evidence contained the written record of the decision. The Court held that the requirement that a decision be supported by substantial evidence included a requirement that the decision and the reasoning be in writing. Otherwise, it would be impossible to determine if a decision complied with the Act.
The local government did issue its reasoning for the denial, but not until 26 days after the decision itself (in the minutes for the meeting). This left the applicants with only 4 days to appeal. The Court found that this was unacceptable, and concluded that the reasons should have been stated at the time of the decision (although they do not necessarily have to be included with the decision itself).
This case may have some fairly significant implications for other types of land use decisions, even though it is specific to the Telecommunications Act. First, it concludes that the reasoning for decisions must be in writing, so that the decision may be properly reviewed. In Utah, land use decisions are also required to be in writing, and any hearings conducted should be recorded. The reasoning in the T-Mobile case could be invoked to require greater detail in a local government’s land use decisions.
Second, the Court criticized the delay between the actual decision and the release of the written reasoning, found in the minutes of the meeting. This approach may have implications in the timing of land use appeals. In this case, the appeal period began to run from the vote on the application, not the release of the “official” written decision. In Utah, it is not entirely clear when the time for an appeal begins to run. The Supreme Court’s reasoning could be invoked to invalidate a local land use decision, if there is a delay between the decision and release of the written order.