Towering conflict

Telecommunications: Counties need plans to deal with towers, which are necessary and multiplying.

September 23, 1999

ALTHOUGH telecommunications towers provide an important service, county and municipal governments should not shrink from exercising their authority to control the towers' placement.

The first step in Maryland should be countywide task forces to examine the proliferation of towers that serve cellular telephones -- they could number 120,000 nationwide within two years -- and come up with reasonable rules and strategies to minimize their impact.

The problem is on display now in Carroll County, where the county commissioners say they will heed a call from the Board of Zoning Appeals to devise a comprehensive plan. The zoning board has taken heat for approving three towers on farmland and, feeling legally constrained to reject the requests, is soon to weigh plans by Sprint PCS for four more 250-foot steel structures. In all, Sprint PCS plans to place 15 antennas in Carroll; Baltimore County is to get a new Sprint tower in Arcadia.

Demand is bound to grow, because antennas are only effective within two to six miles (depending on type and topography), so a communications provider needs a lot of them. The federal Telecommuications Act of 1996 forbids local governments from banning these towers or discriminating among providers. They can control placement, however.

Frederick County imposed a moratorium on new towers last spring to buy time to draft an oversight law. Among remedies being considered: Requiring wireless providers to share towers. Encouraging ways to have the steel skeletons blend better with surroundings, such as painting them, placing them near other tall objects (woods, high-rises), or attaching them to existing structures.

Joint government-carrier committees can promote cooperative solutions. Maryland localities need to develop strategies to deal with this towering challenge.

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