Zoning code for towers in the works

February 28, 1995|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

For at least five years, Anne Arundel homeowners have been battling zoning applications for cellular communications towers in their neighborhoods. And county officials say they have been making decisions without much help from the county code.

Now, county planners are drafting regulations that they hope will reconcile the needs of the fast-growing mobile communications industry with community concerns over the prospect of a 300-foot tower rising out of the landscape next door.

"Technology has surpassed our zoning code," said Steven Cover, who became the county's planning chief in January.

The 1967 code classified communications towers under public utilities, relegating them to dense industrial and commercial zones, but allowing them in other classifications with special exceptions and variances for height.

That wasn't a problem when broadcast stations needed only one tower to cover large areas. But mobile telephones need a network of cellular communications towers. And the code offers no guidance on those kinds of towers and makes no provisions for wireless communications networks, complained Robert C. Wilcox, the county's administrative hearing officer.

"No one tower is going to be so offensive that the world is going to end," said Mr. Wilcox, who has presided over hearings in which community groups have tangled with communications companies. "But when you are looking at so many. . . ."

Communications companies filed seven requests for towers last year, a jump from an average of one a year over the previous five years. And county officials said they expect even more requests this year as mobile phones, pagers and the like proliferate.

The towers can be lattice-like steel structures or flagpole-like antennas.

"We don't want to see Bell Atlantic on one side of the road with its tower and Cellular One on the other with its tower," said County Councilman John Klocko, many of whose west and south county constituents have bitterly fought tower proposals.

Mr. Klocko is working with planners on the legislation, which he hopes to present to the County Council next month. And he's looking at whether the county could rent out space on its buildings for cellular communications companies' antennas.

"They could lease space on existing buildings, many government owned, and we could get revenue," he said.

Rooftop rentals generally are less than $1,000 a month.

Planners are to meet next week with industry representatives to find out where the cellular communications companies need antennas as they expand further into suburban and rural areas, where coverage is spotty and residents object most loudly to new towers.

Mr. Cover said planners also will try to determine where companies can share towers.

Jeff Owens, Cellular One's senior manager for real estate for the Baltimore-Washington area, said sharing facilities helps communications companies cut expenses.

"We are probably looking at needing to build another four to five sites in the near term, say, in the next year, year and a half," he said.

Cellular One owns two towers and six poles in Anne Arundel. It also rents space on six other sites -- four towers, a water tank and a rooftop.

Cellular phone companies say they prefer to locate antennas on existing structures because it is a faster and inexpensive way to set them up. But that is not always possible, especially in Mr. Klocko's rural district.

Kenneth B. Folstein, vice president of the Crofton Civic Association, said his group knows "there is a need for these towers," but it wants them placed "in such a way that they don't adversely impact the community."

The association opposes a tower that West Shore Communications Inc. wants to build near the Crofton Athletic Complex, citing aesthetics and safety issues.

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