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Judge crosses out cell tower dispute

January 1, 2008
A federal suit is going back to Jeffersonville to decide whether a wireless carrier can put up a cell tower disguised as a Baptist church cross.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker Thursday remanded the case Sprint Spectrum v. City of Jeffersonville Board of Zoning Appeals, No. 4:05-cv-00154-SEB-WGH, issuing a final judgment and denying cross-motions for summary judgment from both parties. The nearly three-year-old suit was filed in the Southern District of Indiana New Albany Division.

Sprint wanted to build a "stealth facility" that would hide a cell phone tower and equipment inside a large cross on a Baptist church, something it deemed inoffensive to the church membership and less obtrusive for the neighborhood. The wireless carrier claimed it needed the tower because of inadequate service in Jeffersonville, but the board had denied a previous request for a special zoning exception in a different location and then denied the second request after public hearings in 2005.

Appealing that second decision, Sprint argued the city board had violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was designed in part to limit local governments from unfairly restricting growth of wireless communications through local regulation.

Sprint contended that the board didn't issue a "written decision" as required by the federal law, and both sides filed cross-motions arguing that neither presented enough evidence to proceed. Judge Barker cited a lack of evidence and "he said, she said"-style claims from both sides throughout the process.

"Our analysis causes us to conclude that neither party has fully met its obligations here, and that, indeed, the record is far too meager to support a judicial determination for either side," Judge Barker wrote. "In the final analysis, Sprint must provide a more convincing record to support its need for the exception it has requested. Including a more convincing case that it lacks reasonable alternatives to correct the transmission and coverage problems. As for the Board, it too must lay out its findings and conclusions in a way that explains the insufficiencies it has found in the application before it."
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