The attorneys at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP have extensive knowledge of the telecommunications industry. The full-service firm intimately understands the legal side of telecommunications, having worked with clients and engaged with municipalities for over 25 years to make infrastructure a reality. The firm’s mission is to achieve successful outcomes for clients through vigorous representation, creative advocacy, and high-quality client service.
Leading the telecommunications group in the D.C. region, Gregory E. Rapisarda, Partner, has sixteen years of experience in the industry, understands not only federal laws but also recognizes the needs of local municipalities and residents. “Our goal as attorneys representing our clients is to interact with all stakeholders. We meet face-to-face not only with our clients but also with members of the public and elected officials to navigate the law and consider the desires of everyone involved regarding both towers and small cells,” said Rapisarda.
For clients, Rapisarda and his team handle regulatory issues, local permitting, land use, zoning, and other administrative approvals. The attorneys focus on litigation involving real estate or telecom leases or lease rights against local counties or municipalities for violations of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and beyond.
“Although we are experts on the Telecommunications Act, we try to avoid litigation, though there have been instances where we’ve taken a jurisdiction or landlord to court,” said Rapisarda. “Our preference, however, is working with parties to arrive at a fair solution while still upholding the law.”
Rapisarda shared some examples of successful projects with Inside Towers, focused on overcoming regulatory challenges, securing new site builds, and obtaining approvals for small cell deployment.
The Challenge: Decades-Old Tower Opposition
In D.C., many towers built 20 plus years ago require a special exemption for renewal. Beyond clients receiving a violation notice from a municipality, many times, residents oppose a tower that has stood for decades. The often-contradictory process, combined with community dissatisfaction, could easily cause frustration for all parties involved.
The Solution: Education and Empathy Today
Rapisarda and his team communicate the rules within the Telecommunications Act, working with jurisdictions to navigate code provisions. This is especially true when the municipality enforces a tower renewal that’s not required under the Telecommunications Act.
“We educate the jurisdiction on the federal laws, and because we’re also well-versed regarding local laws, we can collaborate to get things done quickly and cooperatively,” said Rapisarda.
Regarding disgruntled neighbors, Rapisarda explains the law and the benefits derived from wireless services. “Countless times, I’ve met with people in their backyards or on their decks regarding a tower they didn’t want or think they needed,” he said. “I’ve been able to put it in perspective for them, both visually and from a necessity standpoint, to help change their minds regarding the pros of a tower.”
“Residents must be heard, but it’s also imperative that they understand the value of telecommunications infrastructure. Especially amid the pandemic, we’ve seen that phone and broadband connectivity are essential for safety and daily life,” added Rapisarda. “Just as power lines are visible in a community, so are towers and small cells. There’s an aesthetic tradeoff, but both utilities are worthwhile.”
New Site Builds
The Challenge: A Slow as Molasses Process
When building a macro tower from scratch, slowing of the process can occur for various reasons. Some factors of a project delay include a breakdown of conversations with neighbors at community meetings or issues with tower height or radiofrequency emissions among local jurisdictions.
The Solution: Lighting A Fire Through Collaboration
Rapisarda and his team work with clients to navigate macro site builds, primarily in Maryland and Virginia, which requires a plethora of due diligence. The team helps vet tower and small cell sites and rule out alternatives in the design and build phase.
In some instances, the attorneys have gone above and beyond, working with the community on behalf of their clients to arrive at a compromise. One example occurred when a group of residents requested a tower site move from the intended location to a Fire Station. “At the time, the Fire Station was not zoned for a tower, but since the community didn’t oppose the tower itself, we wanted to see what we could do,” said Rapisarda.
The attorneys succeeded in getting the Fire Station zoned properly for the tower. This pro-active endeavor ensured a long-lasting relationship with the community and brought added benefits through upgraded service to the town’s firefighters.
The Challenge: The Past Impedes the Future
As small cell infrastructure pops up in communities nationwide, today’s connectivity doesn’t always fit with yesterday’s aesthetics. In Virginia, a planning commission vote was upended when a group of citizens and the Chair of a historic committee challenged a small cell project at the eleventh hour.
The Solution: Acknowledging Present Concerns
Rapisarda and his team — who are well versed in negotiating agreements for co-location and infrastructure development in the rights-of-way — moved a small cell project along for their client amid challenges. All involved in the project expected a vote during a scheduled planning board meeting; however, the small cells were opposed due to historic site questions from the community.
Instead of insisting that the vote move forward, which the team could have demanded, Rapisarda asked to postpone the vote. In a subsequent meeting, Rapisarda presented a NEPA study to the opposition, showing that the area tapped for small cells was not designated as a historic site. Presented with the research, the community members accepted their error. The board then voted to pass the small cell project with neighbors on board.
“Of course, I love the law and what it can accomplish, but there’s so much more we can do through conversations and education,” said Rapisarda. “We work in the telecommunications industry, emphasis on communication, so why not use that to our advantage?”
Rapisarda partners with a core group of attorneys — where teamwork is a cornerstone — that are passionate and prudent advocates whose legal counsel helps clients define and advance their business and real estate development goals. With 16 offices across Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr serves businesses throughout the United States and internationally. For more information or to contact an attorney, visit https://www.saul.com/.
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