In Baltimore area, churches' bell towers also cell towers

Wireless carriers increasingly leasing steeple space from churches

  • Cell towers are mounted on the steeple of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Northeast Baltimore.
Cell towers are mounted on the steeple of the Episcopal Church… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
July 24, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

The stone marker in Catonsville Presbyterian Church's steeple tower is dated 1921, dedicated "to the Glory of God."

Next to it is a black ladder with caution signs tied to its rungs, warning of radio frequency fields in the narrow space above. In the steeple overlooking Frederick Road, three cell phone companies have placed antennas, serving a growing demand for smartphones, iPads and other gadgets.

Such leasing arrangements help Catonsville Presbyterian and other Baltimore-area churches raise revenue, while companies get access to neighborhoods where it is difficult to build free-standing cell towers. And though the leases have drawn fire from communities worried about health effects and property values, experts predict such deals will become increasingly common as the need for data speed and capacity grows.

"Churches that may not have been considered before will be considered in the future, and those that already have sites will see expansions of the equipment that's already inside their steeples," said Ken Schmidt, president of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Steel in the Air, a company that helps landowners nationwide negotiate leases with cell companies.

For Catonsville Presbyterian, the antennas bring a steady stream of income to help cover maintenance costs for the 91-year-old building — freeing up money for feeding the hungry, reaching out to the community and supporting overseas mission work, said church elder Keith Glennan.

"People are generally happier to have their money that they contribute to the church going to mission and ministry rather than to pay to fix the windows or the air conditioning or the plumbing," he said.

Glennan said the contracts don't allow him to disclose how much the church receives, but the income covers about a quarter of the church's maintenance costs.

"It's a good deal from our perspective," he said. "And obviously, it's a good deal for [the cell phone companies] because it provides them with a good location."

Churches typically earn more than $1,000 a month per wireless carrier, experts said.

The church got its first antenna more than a decade ago, Glennan said. Today, three companies — Cricket, AT&T and Verizon — lease from Catonsville Presbyterian, which has about 400 members.

About a half-dozen churches in Baltimore County lease to cell carriers, assessment officials said.

Church towers provide good opportunities to transmit wireless signals because of their height, said Larry Taylor, director of sales for AT&T in Maryland.

"It's an option we consider when an opportunity arises, but often times, there are more traditional cell site locations that are better suited to provide wireless coverage for our customers," he said in a statement. "It really is a matter of geography and ensuring that our investment in the community provides our customers with the biggest benefit."

Catonsville Presbyterian's cell tower hasn't changed the steeple's outside appearance, Glennan said.

Schmidt said he's seen poorly designed fake steeples that have sparked community outcry over aesthetics. When it comes to installing stealth towers, he said, "there are many levels of quality."

At the Episcopal Church of the Messiah on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, cell equipment is not hidden inside a steeple but mounted on top of the tower, between crosses.

In an era of declining church attendance, money from the leases with AT&T and Clearwire helps the church keep a presence in the Hamilton neighborhood, said the Rev. Timothy Grayson, the church's rector. "That need and that benefit trumps any considerations about detracting from the aesthetic look of the church tower."

In the recent storms, the church's roof was damaged when a 400-pound concrete cross fell from a perch above the entrance, he said. Repairs will be a major, unexpected expense.

"If we didn't have that income stream, these kind of things that happen would have a significantly greater impact," said Grayson, whose church has about 150 members.

The towers generate cash not only for the churches, but for the government. For years, the state Department of Assessments and Taxation has assessed the structures for property taxes, said Robert E. Young, head of the agency.

The state calculates a cell tower's value based on the income it generates monthly, Young said.

Churches' contracts typically require the cell companies to pay property taxes related to the towers, said Schmidt of Steel in the Air, who added that a church should not sign a lease without that provision.

Hugh Odom, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based company Vertical Consultants, said a church often is an "oasis" for a cell company because it's usually in a residential area.

"It's very difficult to get a cell tower or telecom equipment approved, zoning-wise, in a residential area," said Odom, whose firm has advised property owners about leases throughout the country. "That's why churches are so attractive."

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