Phone-tower plans disturb communities

Companies begin to put poles in residential areas

Hearing more proposals

Residents wary dealing with new type of eyesore

March 31, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Those cell phone towers are coming to a nice residential neighborhood near you.

After years of tucking cellular telephone antennas on commercial properties, telecommunications companies are proposing a flurry of towers in Howard County's residential areas - catching neighbors' attention and occasionally their wrath.

The county's Board of Appeals approved at least two towers on residential land in the past six months and is hearing three more requests soon. All are outside Howard's urban core. Most are or would be on farms.

County planners are counting the reasons: more drivers with cell phones, more cellular companies and - in rural western Howard - few commercial parcels to go around.

Deluged with requests in the early 1990s, county officials passed legislation seven years ago to funnel towers away from neighborhoods and the countryside by making it simpler to build on commercial properties. They also required companies to share monopoles.

Those changes worked, said Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Lancos - until now.

"Providers have been doing a great job of finding appropriate locations on commercial property," she said. "It's unusual that we are suddenly seeing so many in residential - particularly rural residential - areas."

All the proposals arriving at once makes her wonder: "How many more?"

"It's such a controversial issue for the community," Lancos noted.

Even ardent cell phone users aren't typically keen on the idea of a towering pole in view of their homes. Dozens of people from the Sykesville area turned out last month to oppose a tower proposed for a farm at Route 32 and Day Road, and they're expected to return when the hearings resume in about two weeks.

"A 200-foot-tall, galvanized piece of steel that you cannot get away from when you're at home is what bothers me the most," said Jonathan Follmer, who lives on Day Road. "I will see it from everywhere. Most of the residents here will see it from every part of their yard, many of their windows."

Howard's planning director, Joseph W. Rutter Jr., said the county would run afoul of federal regulations if officials tried to ban towers outright.

"They're not the most attractive thing in the world, but ... you can't exclude them," he said.

Most of Howard's cell sites are actually on buildings and rooftops, according to Tower Maps, a Virginia-based business that tracks wireless antenna locations. About 60 of the 595 sites are conventional towers, said company president David Ward.

Comparatively few sites - towers or otherwise - are in western Howard. But more are on the way:

In recent months, VoiceStream Wireless and Sprint PCS won permission to build towers - VoiceStream a 75-foot monopole disguised as a flagpole at Glenwood Baptist Church on Route 97 and Sprint PCS a 183-foot tower on a farm on Murphy Road in Fulton.

SpectraSite Communications - which has a 200-foot tower on Sand Hill Road, near U.S. 40 in western Ellicott City - recently got permission to add 20 feet to its top.

Omnipoint Communications is in the middle of hearings for its request to construct a 190-foot monopole on the Day Road site in Sykesville. Company officials say VoiceStream, AT&T and Nextel intend to attach their antennas to the structure.

At the end of April, the Board of Appeals will hear a request from Sprint PCS to build a 155-foot monopole at a farm on Route 94 in Woodbine.

And in May, Verizon Wireless will ask permission to build a 199-foot monopole on a farm at Route 108, near Manor Lane in Ellicott City.

John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless in North Laurel, said the company is trying to improve its signal coverage as it deals with more demands on the system - from new customers and from old customers making more calls than before.

"When we find, through our testing, that we need additional coverage, the first thing that we look for is an existing tower structure," he said. "Building in a residential area is an absolute last resort."

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