Towering dilemma Fake tree: Residents' concerns about towers outweigh inconvenience to phone users.

April 09, 1997

WHILE THERE'S SOMETHING humorous about Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile's plan to disguise a cellular phone tower as a pine tree in Baltimore County, the case illustrates a serious dilemma. More people are carrying cellular phones, especially in their cars; they want unbroken service. But more cellular phone users mean more towers to transmit and receive the necessary radio signals. The towers must be near the callers -- which may mean locating them in residential neighborhoods.

In this case, Bell Atlantic is trying to fill a break in service along the beltway near Pikesville. To fill the break, the company says, a tower has to be located within a certain limited space. Bell Atlantic says it scoured this area for industrial, commercial and manufacturing sites, as well as for water tanks, rooftops and other carriers' poles to which the antennae could be attached. Ninety percent of Bell Atlantic's cellular infrastructure in the Baltimore area do share other structures.

But this time there was nothing but residential property. Bell Atlantic has asked for special permission to erect the tower at the intersection of Greenspring Avenue, Old Court Road and the beltway.

There is no question the phone company is trying to make this tower palatable to neighbors. The tree disguise -- which seems fairly sophisticated -- multiplies the cost of an ordinary tower fourfold. It might even be effective.

Still, this is a phone tower, not an evergreen. Asking neighbors to live near a 100-foot tall commercial structure is asking a great deal, especially since the 2.5-acre lot is so small. (The zoning code says towers should be on at least a five-acre lot if an exception is granted in a residential area.)

Denying Bell Atlantic's request means that if you break down on this stretch of the Beltway, you may need to wait for police or flag down a driver willing to get off at the next exit and make a call for you. Still, that inconvenience doesn't outweigh residents' concerns.

Priorities may have to change if the technology doesn't and the need for cellular service grows so that no one can make a call from major roads. But at least for now the reasons for putting telephone towers in residential communities are not compelling enough.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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