Cell tower limits sought

Balto. Co. councilman seeks ban in scenic, historic locations

Complaints said to grow

Rural stretch of I-83 is focus

battle likely with wireless services

January 22, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Three years after leading an effort to restrict cellular phone towers on rural land and in residential neighborhoods, a Baltimore County councilman will attempt to ban them in historic and scenic areas.

The council is expected to address at its meeting today legislation proposed by Councilman T. Bryan McIntire. The bill comes on the heels of continuing complaints about the proliferation of the tall towers throughout the county, which is zoned two-thirds rural.

"The complaints have continued to increase and have become greater in number and greater in emotion," said McIntire, an Owings Mills Republican.

The battleground of the new bill will be the stretch of Interstate 83 north of Interstate 695. McIntire is hoping to make the rural region off-limits to new cellular phone towers because I-83 has been designated a scenic highway.

Much of the language in the new legislation is taken directly from federal Court of Appeals rulings permitting such a ban, McIntire said. The legislation also would require that those requesting towers in historic or scenic areas seek a special exception from the county zoning commissioner rather than go through a recently created advisory board, the Tower Review Committee.

The council can expect a fight from cellular telephone companies who say the towers are needed for medical emergencies. In addition, companies are standing behind a federal law that prohibits the county from banning towers in an area if they are needed for wireless phone transmissions.

"We look forward to the opportunity to sit down with Councilman McIntire and discuss among other things the current Federal Communications Commission regulations that cover these same issues," said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

McIntire led the charge three years ago when the seven-member County Council unanimously approved legislation that encouraged new antennas on existing towers and discouraged towers in rural and residential areas.

That legislation requires a phone company to show that it has tried to find an existing tower before getting approval for a new one. New towers in rural or residential areas need a public hearing and special zoning exception.

The legislation also created the Tower Review Committee to act in an advisory role on proposed cell phone towers.

A review of tower committee records shows that since the committee was established three years ago, 39 cell phone towers have been proposed in the county. The committee gave positive recommendations to 20. It denied or gave negative recommendations to two and made no recommendations on seven. The remainder are pending.

Keeping the towers out of the county is difficult if they are proposed in the proper zones, county officials said.

"You just can't deny a tower because you don't like it," said Arnold Jablon, director of the county Department of Permits and Development Management.

For critics such as Richard W. McQuaid, the 1998 legislation hasn't gone far enough. The president of the North County Coalition, a citizens group, said he can see two towers from the front door of his home in rural Parkton.

McQuaid recently helped lead a fight against another proposed tower in his neighborhood, on York Road about a mile north of the Parkton exit of I-83. The fight over placement of the tower went to the county Board of Appeals, where it was approved.

"It's within a couple of miles of other towers," McQuaid said.

Peter Max Zimmerman, Baltimore County's people's counsel, challenged the tower's placement.

The tower was approved with little input from neighbors who were unaware that it had been proposed to the Tower Review Committee, Zimmerman said.

"The way the [1998] law is interpreted, it leaves a lot of discretion," Zimmerman said. "In Baltimore County, the tendency is to approve the towers."

Phone companies say that's not necessarily a bad thing. Wireless service is particularly necessary in rural areas because dead spots in service could affect residents trying to get emergency services.

"We have to categorize it as what it is, a public safety issue," said Kate O'Shaughnessy, a Cingular Wireless spokeswoman.

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