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Omnipoint Communications Enterprises, L.P. v. Zoning Hearing Board of Easttown Township

June 04, 2003


On Appeal from the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 99-cv-02080) Magistrate Judge: Hon. Jacob P. Hart

Before: Sloviter, McKEE, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sloviter, Circuit Judge


Argued: December 19, 2002

Sur Panel Rehearing Submitted May 13, 2003


This matter is before us on a Petition for Rehearing filed by the Easttown Township Zoning Board ("Zoning Board") from the decision of this panel filed February 12, 2003. In that opinion, originally reported at 319 F.3d 627 (3d Cir. 2003), we considered the appeal of Omnipoint Communications Enterprises, L.P. from the decision of the Magistrate Judge who upheld the Zoning Board's rejection of Omnipoint's application for a variance to locate its telecommunications tower in a residential district. In our original decision authored by Judge Rosenn we affirmed in part, but vacated in part and remanded to the Magistrate Judge with directions to recalculate the call failure rate in the area at issue to determine whether there is a significant gap in telecommunications service in Easttown Township.

The Zoning Board filed a Petition for Rehearing arguing that the panel decision was contrary to the decision of this court in APT Pittsburgh Ltd. v. Penn Township, 196 F.3d 469 (3d Cir. 1999), where we held that a provider whose application has been denied must show both that its facility will fill an existing significant gap in the ability of remote users to access the national telephone network and that the manner in which it proposes to fill that gap is the least intrusive on the values that the denial sought to serve. The Petition for Rehearing argued that the panel decision erred in its conclusion regarding the manner in which the relevant gap should be determined. We directed Omnipoint to file an Answer to the Petition for Rehearing, and after reconsideration the panel majority has vacated the original opinion and agreed with the position of the Zoning Board for the reasons set forth hereafter. Judge Rosenn continues to adhere to the position in his original opinion. Because the panel majority disagrees only with parts II and VII of the original opinion, we reproduce the introduction (excising only the last sentence thereof), Parts I, III, IV, V and VI of Judge Rosenn's original opinion which we incorporate herewith, inserting asterisks to reflect omissions:

This case raises several important questions concerning the burgeoning wireless telecommunications industry and the interpretation and application of the Telecommunications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. (TCA). Omnipoint is a wireless telecommunications provider that claims that there is a gap in the wireless telecommunications services available to remote users in Easttown Township, Pennsylvania. Omnipoint sued the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB or Zoning Board) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, claiming that the ZHB violated the prohibition and anti-discrimination provisions of the TCA by denying Omnipoint's request for a variance to locate a telecommunications tower in a residential district. See 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(i). Furthermore, Omnipoint alleges that the ordinance under which its variance application was denied violates Pennsylvania law because it is either de jure or de facto exclusionary and fails to provide a "fair share" of Township land for telecommunications uses.

The District Court initially issued a writ of mandamus ordering the ZHB to grant a variance because the Court held that the ZHB decision relied exclusively on aesthetic concerns in its denial and not on substantial evidence supporting rejection. 72 F. Supp.2d 512 (E.D. Pa. 1999). We vacated this writ and remanded the case to the District Court for reconsideration in light of APT Pittsburgh Ltd. v. Penn Township, 196 F.3d 469 (3d Cir. 1999). See Omnipoint Communications Enterprises, L.P. v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of Easttown Township, 248 F.3d 101 (3d Cir. 2001) (Omnipoint I). On remand, Magistrate Judge Hart (MJ) denied Omnipoint's claims because he concluded that Omnipoint had failed to establish a "significant gap" or unreasonable discrimination under the TCA, or unconstitutional exclusion under Pennsylvania law.


Omnipoint is a licensed provider of wireless digital telephone communications services. As such, it uses a low power radio signal that is transmitted between a portable telephone and an Omnipoint antenna. The antenna then feeds the radio signal to an electronic device that is located nearby. In turn, that device connects the signal to an ordinary telephone line and routes it anywhere in the world. The combination of antenna and equipment is known as a cell site. Because of the low radio signal used by Omnipoint, the range of the cell site is quite small. For example, in Easttown Township, the maximum coverage of a cell site is two miles. When a wireless communication facility (WCF) is not available to cover a specific geographic area, customers who live in or travel through that area will experience unreliable service, dropped calls, or an inability to connect to the Personal Communication Service (PCS) network.*fn1

Omnipoint sought to place a PCS tower in Easttown Township because of the gap in its wireless service. Omnipoint hoped to construct a 110-foot stealth flagpole designed PCS tower, 24 inches in diameter at the base and tapering to 16 inches at the top.*fn2 The fiberglass flagpole structure is designed to incorporate the telecommunications antennae which would be invisible from the outside. For this flagpole, Omnipoint leased space on land owned by the Or Shalom Synagogue, located in an area zoned as residential. Under Easttown's zoning ordinance, a communications tower is not a permissible use in residential districts and no residential structure may be higher than thirty-five feet.*fn3

Omnipoint applied to Easttown Township's Zoning Hearing Board for use and height variances. It also challenged the validity of the zoning ordinance under Pennsylvania law and the TCA. Omnipoint alleged that the extant ordinance prohibited or effectively prohibited wireless service in violation of the TCA. ZHB held three public hearings on the applications at which a number of local citizens complained that the stealth tower would be an eyesore. ZHB issued a detailed written decision denying Omnipoint's application and stating that the ordinance was valid under both Pennsylvania and federal law.

The District Court granted Omnipoint's motion for summary judgment in part and ordered ZHB to grant Omnipoint's application. 72 F. Supp.2d 512 (E.D. Pa. 1999).*fn4

We vacated that decision. On remand, the parties consented to have the case proceed in a bench trial before the U.S.M.J. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed. R. Civ. P. 73.*fn5 The parties supplemented the record with expert reports and testimony regarding telecommunications services in Easttown. Omnipoint's principal witness, radio frequency engineer Paul Dugan, supervised drive tests in which approximately six hundred forty actual calls were made using eight cell phones of various providers. Dugan asserted that a signal strength of "negative 85 dbm" was necessary for reliable service.*fn6 On April 1, 2002, the MJ entered judgment in favor of ZHB. See 189 F. Supp.2d 258 (E.D. Pa. 2002). The MJ found that Omnipoint had failed to establish a correlation between the negative 85 dBm standard and users' actual ability to access the national telephone network. The MJ placed significant weight on his finding that mobile phones other than Omnipoint's experienced problems only 1.96% of the time in Easttown. See 189 F. Supp.2d at 265. He also concluded that the ordinance was not exclusionary. Omnipoint timely appealed.*fn7


The Magistrate Judge found as a fact that Omnipoint's stealth flagpole was the least intrusive of the possible alternatives. See 189 F. Supp.2d at 262. We do not disturb this finding because it is not "clearly erroneous." See Warner-Lambert Co., 204 F.3d at 89 n.1. The Township cites the ZHB's original findings that Omnipoint considered few other sites and approached a horse farmer but did not follow up. ZHB's brief also criticizes Omnipoint for not engaging in studies to assess the visual and auditory impact of the flagpoles on the neighboring properties.

Magistrate Judge Hart found that the horse farmer was not interested in leasing the property and that Omnipoint considered other sites but did not choose them because Omnipoint was involved in unrelated litigation with the owners. See 129 F. Supp.2d at 262-63.*fn8 Thus, the MJ's finding that the stealth flagpole was the least restrictive alternative is not clearly erroneous.


In Pennsylvania, a land use restriction is a valid exercise of a municipality's police power when it promotes public health, safety, and welfare and is substantially related to the purpose it purports to serve. See Kirk v. Zoning Hearing Bd of Honey Brook, 713 A.2d 1226, 1229 (Pa. Commw. 1998). A zoning ordinance is presumed valid and a party challenging it has a heavy burden of proving its invalidity. See Penn Township, 196 F.3d at 475. This presumption can be overcome by proof that the ordinance totally excludes an otherwise legitimate use. See Farrell v. Worcester Township Bd. of Supervisors, 481 A.2d 986, 989 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1984).*fn9 Exclusionary ordinances take two forms: de jure and de facto. De jure exclusion exists where "the ordinance, on its face, totally bans a legitimate use." Id. De facto exclusion exists "where an ordinance permits a use on its face, but when applied acts to prohibit the use throughout the municipality." Id.*fn10 The MJ held that Easttown Township Ordinance 160-80 was neither de jure nor de facto exclusionary. We agree.

The ordinance is not facially exclusionary. As interpreted, it does not totally ban a legitimate use. Although the ordinance did not explicitly provide for telecommunications towers, the ZHB twice granted variances for telecommunications towers in the business district under a catch-all provision. 189 F. Supp.2d at 266. Omnipoint argues that a telecommunications tower does not fall within the catch-all provision because it is not of the same "general character" as any of the enumerated uses. However, the ZHB's interpretation of a municipality's zoning ordinance is entitled to weight because it reflects the construction of a statute by an entity charged with its execution and application. See Sprint Spectrum v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of Mahoning Township, 46 Pa. D. & C.4th 187, 192 (Carbon County CCP 2000). Furthermore, simply because an ordinance does not expressly permit a use does not necessarily mean that it negates that use. Cf. APT Pittsburgh Ltd. P'ship v. Lower Yoder Township, 111 F. Supp.2d 664, 670 (W.D. Pa. 2000). Otherwise, the TCA would force localities to enshrine every change in the telecommunications industry into local ordinances at an unrealistically rapid rate. See id.

The ordinance was not de facto exclusionary either. Omnipoint argues that the height restrictions contained in the zoning ordinance effectively prohibit the establishment of functional telecommunication facilities in Easttown Township. The ordinance contained a thirty-five foot height restriction in residential areas and a fifty-foot height restriction in business districts. See 189 F. Supp.2d at 267. The Magistrate Judge rejected this argument because the ZHB had previously granted height variances for communications facilities. Id. at 268; see also Penn Township, 196 F.3d at 476 (explaining that "to succeed in its exclusionary zoning claim... [the Plaintiff] had to prove that no other telecommunications provider, including itself, could build a functional tower...").*fn11

Omnipoint's alternative argument under the "fair share" principle also fails. The "fair share" principle applies when an ordinance only partially excludes a land use. An ordinance is exclusionary when a municipality fails to provide for its "fair share" of a legitimate land use such as multi-family dwellings. See Surrick v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of the Township of Upper Providence, 382 A.2d 105 (Pa. 1977). Local political units must plan for and provide land-use regulations that meet the legitimate needs of all categories of people who may desire to live within its boundaries. See id. at 108.*fn12

Omnipoint contends that Easttown Township fails to provide a "fair share" allowance for telecommunications uses. The B-Business District comprises only 1.1% of the total area of Easttown Township.*fn13 The relevant inquiry is whether Omnipoint has carried its "heavy burden" of showing that the needs of the community's residents are not being adequately served. See Montgomery Crossing Assoc. v. Township of Lower Gwynedd, 758 A.2d 285, 289 (Pa. Cmwlth. Ct. 2000); Schubach v. Silver, 336 A.2d 328, 335 (Pa. 1975). Other telecommunications providers have been able to serve the needs of their customers by placing towers within the business district. To overcome the presumption that the ordinance is constitutional, ...

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