Theodore Mariani

Theodore Mariani is representing the Citizens of Western Howard County in the case against T-Mobile's proposed cell phone tower. (Photo by Noah Scialom / November 30, 2011)

Everyone with a cell phone needs them, but hardly anybody wants a cell phone tower near their home. And nowhere is that more true than in western Howard County.

Cell phone towers and equipment often go unnoticed in the populous parts of Howard, as antenna are often attached to existing structures like government and commercial buildings.

But in the rural western part of the county, where open spaces stretch for miles and nonresidential buildings are few and far between, the proliferation of cell phone towers can disturb residents' scenic domain.

"A cell tower is like environmental litter," Walter Carson, president of the Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said at the group's annual meeting in May. The group, he said, has carefully monitored the recent uptick in towers in the west.

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In November, the organization, represented by board member Theodore Mariani, of Woodbine, lost a zoning appeal against T-Mobile, one of several recent cases in which west county residents have opposed a planned tower.

"I think these things are really improper because they just drop them everywhere and the community has to respond," Mariani said Nov. 14, after the Board of Appeals granted T-Mobile the special zoning exception it needed to put a 127-foot cell phone tower on a 10-acre farm off Daisy Road.

T-Mobile said the tower was needed to make sure that part of the county was covered, and noted that it was designed to look like a silo to better blend in with the agricultural area.

But Mariani and the concerned citizens argued the tower could have been located at a nearby commercial site and still met the company's coverage objectives. Mariani, who lives within view of the proposed tower site, also had concerns about the impact the tower would have on his historic Oakdale property.

Lauren Fitzgerald, the owner of the farm, called the decision to allow T-Mobile to put the tower on her land a business decision.

"The facility increases the value of our property and is a long-term income producing asset," she wrote in an email. "Proceeds will go to our disabled son to improve his quality of life."

Fitzgerald also noted that T-Mobile had approached two or three other landowners before asking her and her husband if they could lease their property for the tower.

"We understood that if we did not take it, one of our neighbors would," she wrote. "This way we have some control over where it goes and what it looks like."

'More rural locations'

The case is just one of many over the past few years in which cell phone companies — most often T-Mobile — have asked the county for zoning exceptions to place cell phone towers on rural and residential land.

The county has roughly 30 cell phone tower sites that have been granted the zoning exception, called a conditional use.

Because towers on non-residential land do not need county zoning approvals, not every tower location in the county is counted. However, unofficial records kept by the county's technology department indicate there are 100 some cell tower or antenna sites (some serve multiple carriers) in Howard, according to Ira Levy, the county's chief information officer.

"It used to be that we had towers that were (only allowed) by conditional use, almost anywhere in the county," Department of Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin said. "More recently, we have one particular provider that's been interested in more rural locations, and that's caused some concerns."

Most of the recent conditional use cases have been in the western part of the county because "there are very few" nonresidential sites available, McLaughlin said. A lot of the objections to the towers arise because people believe they are not aesthetically pleasing, she said. But the county hearing examiner, who decides all conditional use cases can't reject petitions based on those objections.

"I understand very much the citizens' concern, but there's still a need for adequate communications infrastructure," she said. "The difficult part (for citizens fighting the petitions) is trying to make a distinction of why a cell phone tower in one location is having more (adverse) impact than in an alternative location."

To be granted a conditional use for a new tower, cell phone companies must demonstrate there aren't other towers in the vicinity off which they could lease space.