Planners propose new regulations on cellular telephone towers

April 27, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

County planners proposed last night new zoning regulations aimed at discouraging cellular telephone companies from putting up towers or antenna poles in residential areas.

With the boom in cellular telephone use, the towers have proliferated in Howard County, but 16-year-old zoning regulations have not kept up, planners told the county Planning Board.

"There's no incentive to not locate in a residential district," said William O'Brien, the county's zoning chief.

The new regulations would tighten limits on the structures in residential districts and ease them in areas zoned for industrial and commercial uses.

Planners have spent the past year preparing the proposed regulations, said Joseph W. Rutter, director of planning and zoning. They hope that the proposals would prevent situations like the one that occurred last year near Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City.

There, residents protested because they feared a proposed cellular antenna to be built next to the school would emit harmful electromagnetic radiation. Such effects have not been proved -- or ruled out -- by scientific research.

The county Board of Appeals approved a special exception for the tower in December.

The proposed regulations would have prevented the placing of an antenna near a school.

Planning Board member Theodore Mariani noted that to put up a typical pole, or tower, in a residential area, a 16-acre parcel would be needed. Any such structure would have to be twice as far from the property line as its height under the proposed regulations.

Under the proposed regulations, a business that wants to put a communications tower in a residential area would still need a special zoning exception, but would no longer need such approval in most commercial zones. In industrial zones, most limits -- in particular height restrictions -- would be removed, under the proposed regulations.

"So if a guy is in an M1 or M2 [industrially zoned] district, literally he could build a 1,000-foot tower," Mr. Mariani remarked.

That's true, Mr. Rutter said. But, he added, such a tower probably would never be built because the county's undeveloped industrial land is along the U.S. 1 corridor, which is close to Baltimore-Washington International Airport's flight paths.

Mr. Mariani also raised concern about allowing poles or towers up to 200 feet in commercially zoned districts, fearing the structures could fall, or accumulate ice that could blow off onto people on neighboring properties. Those structures could also be placed half the distance from property lines that regulations now require. Current regulations require that towers be as far from the property line as they are tall.

Mr. Mariani recommended that the current distance be kept in the proposed regulations.

Mr. Rutter said the poles commonly being erected by the two main cellular companies in the area -- Bell Atlantic and Southwestern Bell -- are typically between 150 and 200 feet tall and have never failed.

"On occasion, the ice can be a problem, and it can blow off, but it can also blow off a 100-foot building," he said.

Attorney James R. Michael, representing Southwestern Bell's Cellular One phone service, testified that "poles and towers don't fall down." When Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, it leveled houses and trees, but left cellular antenna poles standing, he said.

Mr. Michael recommended scaling back the proposed regulations, and criticized the proposed setback requirement in residential areas as "overkill."

The board will wait until its next meeting May 12 to decide what it will recommend to the County Council, which is expected to take up the proposal in June.

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