A Delaware-based telecommunications company is suing the city of Springfield after officials halted a plan to build a new 180-foot tower for T-Mobile in the northwest part of town.
BRT Group LLC, hired by T-Mobile to build and operate a telecommunications tower, filed a federal lawsuit on April 12.
BRT alleges that state and federal laws were violated when City Council members discussed “improper” issues during public meetings and when the city failed to provide a formal written explanation for the reasoning behind the denial.
In November, the company had applied for a conditional use permit with the city for constructing the tower at 1452 N. La Fontaine Ave., just south of Division Street.
In January and March, City Council discussed BRT’s application multiple times. Council members who opposed the plan called a multitude of telecommunication towers “an eyesore,” questioned the necessity of another T-Mobile tower and suggested that the city look into requiring multiple companies to “collocate” or share towers, as there is an existing 180-foot wireless tower two blocks away from the proposed site.
Those were not things that should have been taken into consideration when debating the proposed wireless tower, according to the lawsuit.
A Missouri law — passed by the legislature in 2014, to the dismay of city leaders at the time — prohibits local jurisdictions from considering certain criteria. Among other things, prohibited considerations include customer demand for service and the availability of other potential locations for a tower, such as the option of collocating.
The plan was tabled at a meeting in January, then brought back and voted down 4-5 by City Council on March 12.
The council members who voted for approving the tower included Mayor Ken McClure, Matthew Simpson, Tom Prater and Kristi Fulnecky.
A letter notifying the applicant of a denial did not include a “substantive explanation” of the reasoning behind the decision, which is against the law, the lawsuit alleges.
BRT also argued that its application should already be approved because of City Council’s failure to make a decision in a timely manner.
State law requires the city to provide a final decision to the applicant within 120 days of receiving an application, the lawsuit said.
“If the City fails to provide a final decision within 120 calendar days, the application will be deemed approved,” according to the suit.
City Council voted down the plan days after the 120-day deadline had passed, court documents show.
BRT wants a judge to order the city to approve the application and provide “further relief as the Court deems just and proper.”
A city spokeswoman told the News-Leader on Thursday that the city has nothing to add at this point.
No members of the public spoke in opposition to the wireless tower plan during public meetings. Both city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission had recommended that City Council approve the proposal.
The property on La Fontaine is owned by Summit Roofing, LLC and would be leased to BRT. The lot is currently being used for storing equipment, said a court document.
The 180-foot tower would be screened by a six-foot-tall wooden fence and shrubs.
Councilwoman Phyllis Ferguson was critical of the proposed screen at a meeting on Jan. 16.
“It’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid around a severed limb, isn’t it?” asked Ferguson.
Ferguson said the proposed tower site is next to a residential neighborhood and expressed concern for neighbors who would have to see the tower every day.
“You know, the poverty rate in that area that you want to put that at is between 25 and 30 percent. Many of them don’t even have broadband services or internet services. So I’m not quite sure how that’s going to serve that area,” Ferguson said to a representative of BRT.
The representative responded that the tower would serve people within a 1-mile radius.
Councilman Craig Hosmer also voiced his opposition to the plan.
“We should require somehow for carriers to have as many people on those poles as possible. So we’re not building separate poles all over the city. Because I think it is an eyesore … If multiple carriers can use the same pole, why not?” Hosmer said.
City Manager Greg Burris alluded to a contentious history of telecommunication tower legislation in Missouri during the Jan. 16 meeting.
He said that the state has “systemically” reduced local control in the matter.
“Our hands are tied in a number of respects,” Burris said.
In 2014, municipalities, including Springfield, had opposed the then-pending legislation that blunted their oversight of telecommunications hardware within city limits.
Supporters had said the law is necessary to encourage the expansion of wireless broadband and will not interfere with local regulations.