When is a Building Permit Required for Equipment Changes?
In recent years, our clients have experienced a number of requests for modifications to existing cell sites. Both tower owners and rooftop owners are getting these requests from the wireless carriers to upgrade their cell sites. Typically these upgrades are for 5G or other advanced wireless services where the carrier is adding antennas and new cabinets to an existing cell site. An upgrade might consist of adding new 3 new antennas or adding larger antennas than are currently on site. The carrier might need to install new cabinets or replace existing cabinets. They might need to add new coaxial cable to connect the cabinets to the antennas. We have found on a number of occasions that the carriers tend to view this work as “maintenance” to their cell site. We suspect that at least in a few cases, they do this because they are trying to avoid pulling a building permit. By avoiding pulling a building permit, they don’t have to take the time to get the permit which can take a month or more and they don’t have to pay building permit fees for the modification.
The problem is that in many jurisdictions, the tower owner or building owner is the one responsible for pulling building permits. Failure to pull a building permit can yield a fine or penalty which the landowner is responsible for paying. It can also result in a stop work order that prevents any work from being done on the tower or the building regardless of whether that work is related to the cell site. In one situation where a client of ours owns a building, the carrier represented that they did not need a permit even though they were using a large crane to lift equipment onto the rooftop and were boring new structural supports into the rooftop. Upon investigation, it turns out that the proposed installation would not have been allowed under the local building code and needed to be revised anyway. Had our client not pushed the building permit issue, the work that would have been done would have been done without a building permit and against code. These are violations that our client, the landowner, would have been responsible for.
Thus, we recommend that you ask the carrier who is proposing to do “maintenance” whether they are actually adding equipment to the roof that isn’t there currently. If they aren’t adding equipment or are replacing existing equipment with the exact same equipment, then let them complete their maintenance. If they are adding equipment or antennas, ask that they provide you with either a copy of the building permit or a copy of a letter signed by the building permit office that states that the proposed work does not require a building permit. Most cell site leases require that the carrier meet or exceed all local, state, and federal laws, codes, and ordinances.