Phone towers trouble Arundel

Once-model law seen as outmoded in dealing with issue

Other counties jump ahead

March 21, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Pia Vining took the call on her cell phone as she was driving home, and she heard an ominous tone in her husband's voice. "Honey, there's something I need to tell you," he said. "Before you drive into our yard, you should know that the tower is up."

Vining said it hit her "like a blow to the stomach." As she pulled into her driveway in Poplar Point she was greeted by a 130-foot cellular telephone tower rising out of the landscape next door - despite an Anne Arundel County ordinance once seen as a model for curbing the proliferation of towers in residential neighborhoods.

The tower was built March 1 while the couple were at work.

"It dominates the view," Pia Vining said. "You feel like you're walking in an industrial zone in your own back yard."

For its part, Sprint insists it is complying with the 5-year-old ordinance and had little alternative but to build in Poplar Point, an Edgewater community where windows frame pastoral views of horses grazing on wide-open spaces and scenic vistas of yachts on the South River.

"This is the infrastructure for tomorrow, and it's not always possible for us or any carrier to put [towers] where the viewshed is unharmed," said Larry McDonnell, a Sprint spokesman. "We did everything according to the ordinance."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Five years ago, other counties were taking a cue from Anne Arundel's strategy to control cellular towers while satisfying the booming wireless industry. But the Poplar Point tower, one of an estimated 5,000 that crop up each year nationwide, stands as a monument to how far the county lags behind other areas in controlling the wireless revolution.

"Other jurisdictions have jumped ahead of us in this area," said County Councilman John J. Klocko III, who sponsored the original bill and is working to revise the ordinance. "It's very apparent now that the industry has changed in the last five years."

But Arundel's law hasn't.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 forbids localities from interfering with wireless phone competition, but some other counties have found creative ways to ensure public input and comply with the statute without unduly hindering tower construction.

In Howard County, zoning officials said a law similar to Anne Arundel County's, which encouraged tower construction in commercial areas, has been successful.

Two years ago, Baltimore County passed a law restricting towers in noncommercial areas and formed a committee - including a citizen representative - that screens applications.

And Carroll County amended its zoning ordinance a year and a half ago to require zoning officials to mail letters to adjoining properties three weeks before the builder's application is up for review.

Anne Arundel County's ordinance went into effect in October 1995 and mainly regulated tower setbacks and encouraged carriers to locate antennas on existing structures, such as water towers or church steeples.

The law, hailed as a model when it was passed, appeared to work at first. A county survey in the spring of 1998 - the latest figures available - showed that of about 60 construction permits approved for cellular antennas, half were in commercial areas and at least 18 were placed on existing structures in residential communities.

But critics say the law has been outstripped by developments in the cellular industry. In recent years, cellular phone prices have plummeted, increasing demand for the wireless gadgets and setting off an explosion of cellular tower construction nationally as more companies compete to offer the service.

Adding to the pressure are technical advances that make for better service but require that cellular antennas be closer together - about every one to three miles - on towers or poles more than 100 feet high, when no existing structure can be found.

"It's cycled into a different animal now," Klocko said.

The Poplar Point issue erupted after Sprint began drilling for the foundation Feb. 22, about 90 feet from the Vinings' property line. Within days, a cement base had been poured, and about 2 a.m. Feb. 28, the Vinings' dogs alerted them to the arrival of a flatbed truck carrying sections of cellular tower.

Angry neighbors call it the "Sprint ambush," saying they weren't notified of Sprint's plans to install the tower near Poplar Point Road until after construction began, even though the site abuts the community's only common area - an open field that serves as a picnic and play area.

But under the Anne Arundel ordinance, neither the builder nor county zoning officials are required to notify owners of adjoining property when towers are built on commercial property. The Sprint tower shares the same sliver of commercial property as Capital Cities International, a repair, storage and sales facility for diesel trucks and WinClean, a professional window cleaning service.

Poplar Point residents say the law is flawed and outdated. They have urged county officials to beef it up to require, among other things, that tower builders list alternative sites with their application and notify all abutting property owners.

"We're not against the technology; we're for responsible development," said Winfield Vining. "They pop up like weeds with no kind of plan."

Sprint has been in talks with the association, and the parties are to meet again today.

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