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.
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.
Though the county tries to promote co-location, Levy said often towers aren't built high enough to serve multiple carriers.
"More often than not if a carrier is putting up a pole themselves, sometimes they'll choose to make that pole a bit lower than they could," he said. "A lot of carriers, or those building towers or looking to locate antennas, a lot of time are looking for the path of least resistance."
To help slow down the addition of new cell phone towers, Levy said the county is developing a strategy to address the problem, part of which involves hiring a company to build towers tall enough to serve multiple carriers and convince carriers to lease space off of those towers. The county plans to put out a request for proposals from companies by the end of this year.
"I would not say that it would absolutely solve every concern or eliminate every concern that's out there, but at least it gives us a plan to follow and a strategy to say we know what we're doing," Levy said.
As a part of the strategic plan, the county also is identifying all of the sites it owns where towers could be placed.
Most cases involve T-Mobile
The General Plan, the policy document that maps out the county's goals and restrictions regarding development for the next 20 years, does not currently address cell phone towers. The county is in the process of updating the plan, which McLaughlin said will mention some of the land use issues, like cell phone towers, that have caused conflict.
The difficulty in regulating towers, McLaughlin said, is that the federal Communications Act limits local control. According to the Federal Communications Commission website, the act prohibits state and local governments from discriminating among providers and over-regulating to the point of prohibiting carriers from being able to provide personal wireless services, among other limitations.
Another challenge, Levy said, is a 2009 FCC ruling defining the time frame in which state and local governments have to act on zoning decisions regarding cell phone tower placement. The ruling gives 90 days for a co-location application and 150 days for new tower applications.
As McLaughlin pointed out, many of the conditional use petitions over the past several years have come from one particular carrier — T-Mobile.
Earlier this year, T-Mobile sued the county after the Board of Appeals denied its petition to put a 100-foot monopole cell tower, concealed to look like a flagpole, at a church site on Burntwoods Road in Glenwood. The board ruled that the company had not made a "diligent effort" to find an existing structure or non-residential site on which to locate the tower.
The lawsuit is currently pending in federal district court, according to county spokesman Kevin Enright.
In the past five years, T-Mobile has added 33 locations to its inventory of cell phone towers and antenna in Howard County, according to company spokesman Jason Campbell.
"In regards to the development of new wireless broadband facilities, T-Mobile works very hard to minimize the proliferation of new towers to support the growing demand on our wireless network," Campbell said in an email response to questions.
"In fact, 90 percent of our wireless broadband facilities in Howard County are located on existing structures such as buildings, church steeples, water tanks and high tension power towers."
In cases where existing structures are not available, Campbell said the T-Mobile takes "great care to reduce the visual impact of the facility on the local area."
In a separate email, Campbell said the company has built seven towers in Howard County in the past 10 years: five monopoles and two flagpole structures.
He said T-Mobile also has proposed building five more support structures in the county: one monopole, two silos, and two "unipoles," in which equipment is concealed in the pole.
Spokespersons for AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless did not return calls or emails seeking comment on their procedures for cell tower placement.
In trying to fight T-Mobile's plans for the tower off Daisy Road, Mariani said the biggest problem he encountered is that "there is no repository of information of where cell phone towers are located."
He said antennas placed on existing structures, such as ones on the water tower located north of the Harper's Choice Village Center in Columbia, and on top of Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, "are pretty innocuous.
"Where the problems occur is all of a sudden (companies) plant down these huge monopoles, which can be pretty ugly … those are the things that give us pause," he said.
The county needs to work with the companies to identify locations for cell phone towers that would minimize the impact on the community, Mariani argued, and hopefully the strategy officials are developing will accomplish that.
In the meantime, Mariani and the Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County must decide whether or not they want to appeal the Board of Appeal's decision to allow the cell tower at the Daisy Road farm.
"We're still looking at our options on that," he said Nov. 28. "It's an expensive, laborious process, so we want to make sure we're on really good grounds before we go forward with it."