T-Mobile West, LLC et al. v. San Francisco

Court: California Supreme Court
Case Number: S238001
Decision Date: April 04, 2019
Case Type: Telecommunications
The Supreme Court of California held that a California state statute that explicitly allowed telephone companies to construct lines and erect equipment in municipal right-of-way (ROW) did not preempt a local ordinance which placed aesthetic requirements on an telephone equipment placed within the ROW. San Francisco adopted an ordinance in January 2011 which required anyone constructing, installing, or maintaining a personal wireless service facility in the ROW to obtain a permit. The ordinance particularly focused on maintaining the city's beauty and designated areas, such as historic areas, that were subject to heightened aesthetic review. 

After the adoption of the ordinance, T-Mobile sought declaratory and injunctive relief alleging that the ordinance was preempted by state law which specifically allowed for telephone companies to construct telephone lines along and upon the ROW. The state law explicitly allowed telephone companies to erect poles, posts, wires, and other necessary fixtures in the ROW in such a manner and at places where it would not "incommode the public use" of the ROW. After the trial court rules that state law did not preempt the ordinance and the California Court of Appeals affirmed, T-Mobile appealed to the Supreme Court of California.

The Supreme Court of California held that the California Constitution allowed local governments to enforce within their limits ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general law. The Court determined that the state law providing telephone companies with a state-wide franchise, meaning local governments could not require a local franchise, but that the state law did not do anything more than give the telephone companies a right to operate. The Court further held that the legislature did not fully occupy the field of ROW management and that the city was attempting to regulate an area over which there were significant local interests. The Court concluded by determining that state law gave deference to local governments in matters concerning the design and location of wireless facilities in the ROW and that the state law and the ordinance could operate in harmony.