When is a flagpole not a flagpole? How about when it's a cellular phone tower?
In its latest attempt to disguise unsightly antennae, AT&T Wireless Services Inc. plans to build a 125-foot flagpole -- with lights and an American flag -- in the Anneslie Shopping Center on York Road near Towson. The equipment would be tucked inside the pole.
The move comes after community opposition last fall thwarted the company's proposal to build a cellular site camouflaged as a bell tower at nearby St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church. The church backed down after neighbors voiced concerns about the possible effects of electromagnetic radiation and the tower's impact on property values.
But AT&T still needed a location near the city-county line to meet demand for cellular phones, said Leigh Warren, manager of public affairs for AT&T. The shopping center, which is anchored by a Caldor department store, provides a convenient site, she said. The site does not require a special zoning exception.
The pole will be built in a small plaza between two stores, Warren said.
While AT&T, which has about 320 radio links in the Baltimore-Washington area, has built other phone towers, the flagpole is the company's first camouflaged site.
"What we heard from citizens was definitely stealth," Warren said. "We really wanted to address community concerns."
The flagpole disguise also meets the intent of a County Council bill, which was introduced last month to keep cellular sites as unobtrusive as possible, said Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley.
"It's a good solution all the way around," said Riley, who supports the AT&T proposal. "The only concern I have is it's going to be a very tall flagpole."
The flagpole definitely will be noticeable.
A typical school flagpole, for example, is about 25 feet tall, according to a spokeswoman for a Florida-based flag company. A 70-foot pole in front of a business would be considered "really tall," she said.
Many neighbors would prefer not to have the flagpole in their midst.
"The problem we see is that there will be more than one wireless purveyor who will want to be there, maybe four or five carriers," said Jim Dobson, president of the Anneslie Community Association. "We're concerned what it will look like."
The flagpole configuration would allow only one other provider to use the structure, AT&T's Warren said. "From a technical standpoint, it is less coverage," she acknowledged.
Lease negotiations with the shopping center for the flagpole site should be complete in a few weeks, said Kathy Ott, leasing manager for Apex Site Management, which oversees the property.
Ott and Warren declined to discuss terms of the renewable five-year lease. But St. Pius would have received about $90,000 over that period if it had proceeded with an agreement with AT&T.