Antenna leases may be cash boon

Town plans to rent space on water tower to cell phone company

New Windsor

January 23, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In New Windsor, one water tower will help pay for another.

The town has come up with a creative plan to finance the $500,000 needed for its second water tower by leasing space on its 30-year-old water tank to cellular communications companies.

"So far, we have had no opposition," said Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr. "We have seen pictures, and you can't even see the antennas."

The Town Council has approved a 10-year lease with Page-Net, a cellular phone company that will pay $1,100 monthly for antenna space on the Rowe Road water tank. The lease has inflation increases built into it, so its total value cannot be calculated. Officials are also negotiating similar contracts with two other companies.

Hampstead has cellular antennas on both of its water towers and would readily lease space on a third one it plans to build.

"The equipment is unobtrusive and unnoticeable, and it generates revenue for the town every year," said Ken Decker, Hampstead town manager. "A water tower is an expensive proposition. It helps if you can get $15,000 a year to defray those costs."

The explosion in cell phones has created the demand, and most jurisdictions would prefer using existing structures to building towers, Decker said. Cellular companies usually face strident opposition from residents against building cellular towers that might clutter the skyline. It takes months of zoning hearings before building can begin.

Antennas atop a 150-foot-high water tower are not nearly as unsightly as they are on a much taller cellular tower, Decker said.

"The idea now is to exhaust all co-location opportunities, before building a cellular tower," said Thomas B. Beyard, director of planning and public works for Westminster. "Some towns even have them in church steeples."

Westminster is considering an offer from Sprint, which has asked for antenna space on one of the city's three water tanks.

"We have made no decision, but we are interested," Beyard said.

Sprint built the cellular tower at the Westminster State Police Barracks, which is outside the city limits, and gives the county space there for its communication operations.

"These arrangements are not uncommon," Beyard said. "Both use the location and get what they need."

In New Windsor, the lease will generate income and improve cellular communication in an area where reception has been poor.

A recent audit showed the town of 1,100 is financially healthy. It has a $73,000 budget surplus, which will go into its capital improvement fund, during a year in which it lowered its property tax rate to 40 cents, the lowest among the county's eight municipalities. But, with an annual operating budget of about $200,000, it can ill afford a $500,000 water tank.

The same audit shows the town is losing money on its water operation. Residents pay $35 quarterly to use the public water system. In 1994, when the fee was $25, an amount set in 1972, a consultant's study said $60 quarterly would be a more appropriate charge.

The two-term mayor does not want to raise taxes or water charges and had to come up with creative financing. A $250,000 low-interest loan was secured from the state.

"Everything comes down to economics," Gullo said. "There is nowhere in the county where cell companies can an erect an antenna as quickly as they can in New Windsor."

Putting antennas on existing structures bypasses town zoning regulations, Gullo said.

"If you are Sprint and you want to put up a tower, zoning prohibits you in this town," he said. "But, if you want space on the water tank, we will lease it to you.

"Citizens get better reception," he said, "and they benefit because we are leasing space on something that is already there."

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