Cell tower laws to be re-examined

Poplar Point dispute raises concerns about notification

1995 law possibly outdated

Owens to visit neighborhood on Monday

Edgewater

March 30, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Responding to the outcry of Poplar Point residents over a cell-phone tower they say has destroyed the character of their Edgewater community, County Executive Janet S. Owens ordered planning and permits officials yesterday to review the laws governing tower location and recommend changes within 60 days.

Owens said she is particularly concerned that county laws do not require cellular carriers or county zoning officials to notify owners of adjoining property when cell towers are built on commercially zoned land.

"The towers, now that everyone has a cell phone, are a fact of life today," Owens said. "But I want to make sure that residents are at least notified when one of them is being built."

Owens' action occurs one month after Sprint erected a 130-foot cell tower in Poplar Point without notifying residents. The commercial property the tower was built on abuts the community's only common area - an open field that serves as a picnic spot and playground.

Sprint maintains that it complied with requirements of the 5-year-old county ordinance regulating tower construction. The tower shares the same sliver of commercial property as a truck repair, storage and sales facility and a window-cleaning service.

Poplar Point Community Association has asked the county Board of Appeals to order the tower taken down on the grounds that it is too close to the community recreation area. The tower is less than 80 feet from a field where children play lacrosse and football, according to the association. A hearing is scheduled for June 12.

The county's cell tower ordinance was hailed as a model when it was adopted in 1995, but critics say it has been outstripped by developments in the cellular industry.

"We've got to catch up," Owens said yesterday. "The whole cell tower issue is exploding. We know demand is only going to increase." There is a need for more towers, she said, because of "dead zones" in the county where cellular customers cannot receive a signal.

The 1995 law earned the county an award from the Maryland chapter of the American Planners Association for "zoning innovation." County spokesman John A. Morris said Owens ordered the review to see how it could be improved.

"As [an earlier Sun] article notes, other counties are trying things that Anne Arundel didn't think of when it adopted these codes," Morris said.

Two years ago, Baltimore County passed a law restricting towers in noncommercial areas and formed a committee - including a citizen representative - that screens applications. Carroll County amended its zoning ordinance in 1999 to require zoning officials to mail letters to owners of adjoining properties three weeks before the builder's application is up for review.

"I think it demonstrates true leadership," MaryAnn Magee, the Poplar Point association's president, said of Owens' response. "I believe it strengthens our [Board of Appeals] case."

Sprint has been in talks with the community, and the parties are to meet again Wednesday. But Magee said that meeting will take place only if the company agrees beforehand that it is serious about removing the tower. Otherwise, she said, "We will pursue other strategies."

Owens said yesterday that she will visit the neighborhood Monday - apparently in response to an invitation from Winfield Vining, a resident who lives closest to the tower with his wife, Pia, and their 2-year-old son.

Vining, a real estate salesman who recently launched a Web site to protest the tower (www.angel- fire.com/md2/fightsprint), said he sent a letter to Owens' office about two weeks ago expressing outrage over what he called the "inadequacies of current zoning regulations."

Vining said he invited Owens to stand on his backyard deck to see his son's swing set clearly within the "topple zone" of the tower next door, less than 90 feet from his property line.

Councilman John J. Klocko III, who sponsored the 1995 tower ordinance, is working with Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk on revising the law.

Owens said the county has no way to force Sprint to take down the legally permitted tower, because the company followed the law, but she sympathizes with nearby residents. "I know I'd be really upset if I came home one day and saw a cell phone tower of that size in my back yard," she said. "I don't know how we can help with Poplar Point, but we can ensure this doesn't happen again."

Sun staff writer Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

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