Phone tower plans fought

Preservationists, cellular companies at odds in Balto. County

AT&T request denied

Need for more antennas rising as use increases

December 26, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When the members of Catonsville Presbyterian Church built their Frederick Road sanctuary in the 1920s, they couldn't have known the cupola and spire would one day turn into cash cows.

Today, the cupola brings rent from a cellular telephone antenna installed inside by AT&T Wireless. Soon, one will be installed in the steeple for VoiceStream customers.

With the equipment hidden from view, it's an ideal arrangement, says church trustee William Quigley, who declined to say how much money the antennas yield.

The rest of Baltimore County should be so lucky.

For the past few years, the county has grappled with community complaints over cell antennas placed on what some say are unattractive towers, or poles, more than 100 feet high, when no existing structure can be found.

The county's zoning commissioner recently denied a request from AT&T Wireless to erect a 150-foot pole in a rural historic district. And community leaders in Timonium are fighting Sprint's proposal to put a pole near Loch Raven Reservoir.

But with the growing reliance on cell phones, the antennas are needed every few miles and are becoming as essential as the old-fashioned telephone pole.

Donald Rascoe, Baltimore County's development manager, says he tells residents, "`Don't leave me your pager or cell phone number if you're calling to complain about towers. I don't have much empathy.' If you want the technology, you have to accept responsibility for it," he said.

Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a Washington trade group of cell phone companies, said the United States had 81,698 cell antenna sites as of last December, with an estimated 22,000 added during 2000.

In Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, government officials have taken advantage of the new business by soliciting cell phone companies to install their devices on county property.

David Wise, Howard County's communications systems technical manager, said the county has collected $200,000 from rent on more than 12 antennas in the past few years. The money goes toward the fire and police radio systems, he said.

Anne Arundel leases 23 sites for $488,000 a year. This year, a Reston, Va., company began negotiations to replace light poles at two county high school football fields with 120-foot towers.

In Carroll County, the towns of New Windsor and Union Bridge have passed laws allowing the cell antennas as a way to make money for their small municipalities. In New Windsor, a cell phone company pays $1,100 a month to lease space on a 30-year-old water tower.

Officials in Baltimore County said they don't know how many antennas have been installed there to date because they had no central system to track them until two years ago, but 17 have been approved since 1998.

New cell towers are sometimes disguised as trees or flagpoles, including one in front of the former Caldor store in the 6400 block of York Road in Anneslie, just over the Baltimore city line.

Alexa Graf, corporate communications manager for AT&T Wireless, said the company's policy is to install antennas on existing structures for its 14 million cell phone customers - and does so 85 percent of the time.

But AT&T Wireless recently faced opposition for a 150-foot tower in a rural, historic district in Sparks in northern Baltimore County. The county's zoning commissioner turned AT&T Wireless down last month.

Although the Federal Communications Commission requires enough antennas to provide service to cell phones, county officials passed a law restricting the towers in noncommercial areas and formed the Tower Review Committee to screen applications two years ago.

County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who sponsored the law and formed the committee, represents northern Baltimore County, where existing high structures are hard to come by and towers would rise above the treetops.

"I defy anyone to say adding cellular towers along I-83 beautifies it," he said.

The recent zoning case involving AT&T's request for a tower on Bacon Hall Road in Sparks demonstrates the clash between the owners of lucrative cell phone businesses and land preservationists.

The hearing before Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt consumed parts of three days. AT&T Wireless hired two lawyers who brought eight experts to testify, including engineers, a real estate appraiser and an environmental consultant.

The protesters included neighbors as well as the Valleys Planning Council, a watchdog group that protects rural land.

"Towers by their nature are intrusive and alien to the natural landscape," said Jack Dillon, director of the Valleys Planning Council, who testified against the tower.

Schmidt ruled against the tower, noting its location in a historic district and the adverse impact on property values.

"The view could be described as bucolic and unspoiled," wrote Schmidt. "The construction of a monopole at the subject location would present a particularly egregious impact, in terms of its visual disruption."

Community leaders in Timonium face a similar problem in dealing with a proposal by Sprint to install a tower in the Loch Raven Watershed.

On Oct. 31, the president of the Greater Timonium Community Council informed a Sprint representative by letter that the group's board of directors "has unanimously voted to vigorously oppose your proposal."

The president, Lou Miller, pointed to the visual impact of the tower, as well as the group's opposition to using the city-owned watershed for commercial purposes.

"Any tower that is 160 to 220 feet tall will be a visual blight in our community," wrote Miller.

A Sprint representative did not return phone calls. County officials say Sprint has yet to file its formal application for the tower, but it would have to get a "special exception" from the zoning commissioner.

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