Cell Phone Towers as Visual Pollution
33 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2009
Date Written: 2009
Cell phone towers are just the most recent target of visual pollution complaints. The term visual pollution has been used by courts, academics, and environmental groups to explain their distaste for ugly buildings, telephone towers, billboards, flags and signs, and numerous other images that have been derided as polluting the visual landscape. The idea of pollution helps explain the controversy surrounding the aesthetics of cell phone towers. Claims of visual pollution assert a desire for a particular kind of environment, one free from the polluting effects of unwanted signs, towers, and other sights. Some local governments have tried to legislate the kinds of places where towers should or should not be located, but those efforts have met with mixed success and sporadic application. The federal Telecommunications Act (TCA) intervenes in that process by insisting that local governments offer substantial evidence to justify their zoning decisions concerning cell phone towers. Local governments continue to be especially suspect to constituent complaints about the sight of cell phone towers even as the courts frequently find that such complaints fail to satisfy the TCA’s substantial evidence standard. This essay analyzes the idea of visual pollution in the context of cell phone towers. It describes the nature of, and responses to, visual pollution. It then examines the debate concerning the aesthetics of cell phone towers, which pits affected residents against cellular providers, with local governments exercising their traditional powers of land use regulation while being constrained by the TCA’s effort to promote wireless services. I then reflect on the lessons that the idea of pollution offer for controversies regarding cell phone towers, and the lessons that the cell phone tower controversies offer for understanding pollution in other contexts.
Keywords: cell phone tower, cellular, phone, tower, Telecommunications Act, aesthetic, pollution, visual, landscape, substantial evidence, billboards, zoning, national park, wind farm
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