Church Cell Tower Leases and Zoning Laws

How to navigate the process smoothly and with minimal problems.

Kevin Donohue spent decades building networks for wireless companies before switching sides to represent landowners through his work with Tower Genius—a consultant firm that helps churches, businesses, and private citizens with lease agreements. He spoke with us about navigating local zoning laws.

Wireless companies have been setting up cell towers since the early 1990s. Have they always been interested in leasing land from churches?

For the first six or seven years of wireless, I wasn’t aware of any churches being approached. Then, when wireless companies needed to fill in areas, they started looking at existing structures—like church steeples. The need for towers died down for a while, but it’s starting to pick up again. I think you’re going to see more churches being approached.

Are zoning issues with towers tough to navigate?

In many cases, churches have no problem with zoning boards. Let’s take steeples as an example. The wireless company draws up plans to hide the antenna into a steeple that actually looks better than the old one. It will end up improving the look of both the church and the community.

Around 22 or 23 years ago in Scarsdale, New York, I wrote the first wireless ordinance between the industry and local zoning board. Scarsdale is a very high-end community; it’s very difficult to zone anything there, so I sat down and wrote an ordinance that’s now used throughout the country, with other cities manipulating it to fit their needs. It puts preferential treatment on existing structures, towers, and rooftops. If churches can hide the antennas, planning boards and zoning boards won’t give them a hard time.

Are there any other problems that might arise at places considering adding cell towers?

The only other time you run into problems is when people bring up the health question, particularly if the church has a daycare center attached to it. People with this concern will be opposed to the tower. However, the towers aren’t harmful to health as long as the tower meets electromagnetic radiation emission levels agreed upon by the federal government.

What if the community is upset about a church working with a wireless company?

Wireless companies don’t want the bad press, because their marketing department is trying to sell you phones. They will always work with the planning board to come up with a design solution.

If there is any controversy, does it usually die down?

People just stop noticing the towers. For example, I was working to get a monopole next to a school, and the community thought it would be visually unappealing. I asked the board which way people drove to the hearing. When they answered, I said, “You passed three of these monopoles on the way here.” They said I was a liar. We adjourned. After they had a chance to look at them, they came back and apologized and gave me their approval.

For more insights on cell tower leases, including the financial and tax ramifications of such arrangements, see “Cell Tower Leases: Easy Money or Never-ending Headaches?

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