Neighbors criticize cell phone tower plan

190-foot structure proposed for farm in Sykesville area

February 08, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

No one rolls out the welcome wagon for a 190-foot-tall neighbor.

In the latest act of a drama played out repeatedly from cities to the countryside, angry residents marched into a public hearing last night - this time in Howard County - to make clear that a cell phone tower is one of the last things they want to see in their neighborhood.

Omnipoint Communications wants to build the tower in the middle of a 148-acre farm in Sykesville. Three carriers - VoiceStream, AT&T and Nextel - intend to attach their antennas to the structure.

County Board of Appeals members were still taking testimony from the company at 9 p.m. and had not heard from the nearly 50 western Howard opponents who crowded the meeting room.

Howard County encourages communication companies to build towers on commercial sites by making it simpler to win approval for those properties.

But Omnipoint, which needed to close a gap in service in the rural Sykesville area, couldn't find anything better than the farm, according to their attorney.

Karl J. Nelson, representing the company, a subsidiary of the Bellevue, Washington-based VoiceStream, said before the hearing that the site was as good as one could expect because the sizable farm can act as a buffer.

Most of the property - not including an acre in the middle where the tower would go - is in an agricultural preservation program that restricts development.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat it - there's nothing we can do to make a 190-foot monopole prettier than it is," Nelson said. "But in this case ... it's as far away from adjoining residences as you could ever hope for."

Neighbors were not impressed. Some said that the county should have no obligation to approve the site because other wireless companies provide good service in the area.

Many did not like the idea of seeing such a structure every time they look out their windows or sit on their lawns.

Jonathan Follmer, who owns 75 acres across the road, said he is sure the pole would lower property values in the neighborhood. He said he has not decided whether to develop his land but had left the option open.

"As it stands now, we can say: `Beautiful home sites across from 150-acre land preserved farm.' If this goes up, the ad changes to `beautiful view of 200-foot communication tower,'" Follmer told another county board last month.

About 35,000 to 40,000 free-standing cell phone towers can be found in the country, according to the Yankee Group, a communications research and consulting company in Boston.

But cell phone companies say they avoid building towers whenever possible.

Joe Attanasio, a network engineer for Cingular Wireless, said it is his experience that most of the time antennas can be attached to an existing structure - on a water tank, in a steeple, alongside a smoke stack - and sometimes new poles can be disguised.

Omnipoint, for instance, will be building a 70-foot "flag pole" on Route 97 in western Howard County. But Nelson said the company cannot build a shorter tower in Sykesville and did not have the option of dovetailing their antennas with something else.

"There are no tall structures in the area," he said. "It's not like you can just to go out and just hang antennas on anything. Something has to be built."

`They ruin the landscape'

The fight over towers - particularly in rural places, where the structures are often taller - does not show signs of easing.

Baltimore County recently fired a new salvo by banning new cell phone towers in historic and scenic areas.

Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who represents the rural northern county and Owings Mills, said he introduced the legislation because he wants to protect beautiful sights from tall intrusions.

"They ruin the landscape, they ruin people's views," McIntire said of cell phone towers. "We are trying to preserve the agricultural nature of the north county, and they don't help."

"Of course, as far as I'm concerned, they're welcome to put a cellular tower anywhere as long as [it] can't be seen," he said.

Some residents at the hearing last night said they wish wireless companies - like the power companies before them - could figure out a truly invisible replacement for towers.

"They've got to find some other way to handle this," said Eugene Burgess, who lives less than a mile from Omnipoint's proposed site.

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