City’s OK not needed for tower, judge rules

Judge’s ruling a ‘major blow’ to municipalities, Nolan says

By Mike Anthony

A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge has ruled that St. Louis County does not require Sunset Hills’ approval to construct an emergency communications tower on South Lindbergh Boulevard.

In his Oct. 10 ruling, Circuit Court Judge Robert Cohen wrote, “… The court finds and declares that St. Louis County does not need zoning approval from the city of Sunset Hills to build its emergency communications tower at the South County Health Center and the county is not bound by the height restriction contained within Sunset Hills’ zoning ordinance.”

Sunset Hills filed the suit Sept. 4 against the county seeking a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and permanent injunction prohibiting the county from constructing the emergency communications tower behind the South County Health Center, 4580 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

The site is owned by the county.

The 190-foot emergency communications tower will be one of roughly 25 towers being located throughout the county as part of St. Louis County’s new emergency communications network.

County voters overwhelmingly approved a one-tenth of a cent sales tax in November 2009 to fund the new emergency communications network.

In its suit, Sunset Hills contended St. Louis County lacked the authority to construct and operate the tower within the city without approval from city officials because the municipal code prohibits the construction of telecommunications towers that exceed 100 feet.

But in its response, the county stated, “Completion of the tower is vital to public health and safety and will directly benefit all residents of St. Louis County, as well as all members of the public in the greater metropolitan area, including those in the city …”

In his ruling, Cohen wrote, “… St. Louis County is entitled to judgment in its favor because the overriding need for timely completion of the emergency communications system, which is vital to public health and safety for all residents and other members of the public in St. Louis County, overrides and completely overshadows the city’s interest in regulating St. Louis County’s communications towers …”

Sunset Hills Mayor Bill Nolan told the Call he has serious concerns about Cohen’s ruling, noting it has far-reaching consequences for his city and other municipalities.

“I don’t know how far this goes,” he said. “For a circuit judge to decide that the county can do anything it wants in a municipality is unbelievable. Where does it end? If a municipality has no control over its zoning, which is the reason people live in municipalities, to be able to control their physical environment, then the county can build a metal shed in the middle of a residential subdivision?

“The county can build a five-story office building for county personnel in an area that’s zoned for two-story buildings? Can they put a gasoline storage tank next to a school and we can’t do anything about it? Now I understand the stipulation is it has to be for a public use. Let’s suppose they want to build a swimming pool and they want to build it in the middle of one of our prime commercial properties. They can do it. Zoning isn’t required, right?”

Nolan termed the ruling a “major blow” to municipalities and their authority to regulate development within their boundaries.

“Irate and upset is an understatement,” he said of his reaction to the ruling. “At this point in time, we are pretty much convinced that an appeal would not accomplish much because the only legal issue we’re staring at is whether or not the Missouri Constitution grants a charter county the authority that they feel they have.”

Nolan said he already has sent a copy of Cohen’s ruling to the St. Louis County Municipal League.

“I will take the issue to the Municipal League and see if they’re prepared to join us in an appeal just on the decision of whether or not the county truly has the authority to do away with municipalities’ authority to regulate zoning,” he said.