Church weighs plan to camouflage cellular-phone link with bell tower St. Pius X near Towson could earn $90,000 in deal, but neighbors are opposed

October 13, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

While some cellular phone towers are disguised as evergreens, palm trees or flagpoles, St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church near Towson is considering putting up a bell tower to hide a proposed 100-footer.

The church -- which stands to gain thousands of dollars in rental income for allowing the tower to be built on its property -- hopes the camouflage will appeal to neighbors.

So far, residents of the nearby Rodgers Forge community aren't convinced by the plan.

"We haven't seen an artist's rendering," said Rich DeNardi, who lives in the 200 block of Overbrook Road next to the church. "And that doesn't address the health effects."

Many oppose the tower, fearing the effects of electromagnetic radiation emissions from cellular antennas.

"There is a lot more to this issue than just aesthetics," said Don Gerding, a member of the Rodgers Forge Community Association board of directors, which voted last week to oppose the tower.

Many parents of students at St. Pius X School, on the church property in the 6400 block of York Road, also oppose the proposed tower. The board of the St. Pius X Home and School Association recently wrote to the church's pastor, the Rev. Thomas J. Golueke, expressing their concerns.

Ward Smith, president of the school association's board of directors, said health issues were discussed at a recent meeting on the tower, but parents remain worried.

'Afraid' for daughter

"Radiation concerns were addressed, but there are concerns, whether they are actual and real or paranoia," he said. "I'm afraid of a lot of things when it comes to my daughter."

Chris Doherty, director of public affairs for AT&T Wireless Services Inc., which is seeking to build the tower at the church, said thousands of studies have been done on the effects of radio waves -- a concern heightened by the rapid growth of wireless telephone services nationwide.

"There is no known link between radio waves and illnesses. But we'll keep looking at it," he said. "You have to understand how wireless communications work. They use low-powered radio waves the equivalent of a 120-watt light bulb."

Golueke said the church has not decided on the tower, which would be placed next to the rectory.

If an agreement is reached with AT&T, a five-year renewable contract would earn the church $90,000. The church, which will celebrate its 40th birthday in January, has about 1,450 families as parishioners.

Several residents raised concerns about the money the church would receive from the tower.

"Should the church be involved in a commercial venture?" Gerding asked.

Said Golueke, the pastor: "When you look at a budget, you work with so much a year. It would be foolish not to look at the possibility of supplementing one's budget."

He said he has received no input from the Archdiocese of Baltimore about the tower.

"We don't have any knowledge or written documents about this issue," a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said.

Debra Mitchell, a neighbor who fears the tower would lower the price of homes in the area, said, "I think it is a shortsighted, ill-advised attempt at fund raising. I don't want to pay with my property values to subsidize the church."

10 church sites

Placing communications towers on church properties has become a cottage industry, Doherty said, noting that his company's 320 radio links in the Baltimore-Washington area include about 10 church sites.

Among them are St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Annapolis and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street in Baltimore, where antennas are hidden in steeples.

"Eighty-five percent of our links are on existing structures -- on rooftops, on water tanks," Doherty said.

But, now, the company needs a site in the York Road corridor. While it has considered a commercial property at a nearby Caldor department store, it is focusing on St. Pius church.

Designers are working on sketches of the proposed bell tower, said Diane Klein, a consultant with the project.

"It will be costly for AT&T," she said. "I think the neighbors will be pleased with what we're doing."

The average cost of constructing a tower is $250,000 to $300,000, Doherty said.

If the church decides to proceed with the tower, it would be subject to the approval of a county zoning commissioner. If a special exception is granted, AT&T officials hope to have the tower operating by the end of March.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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