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Proposed cell towers bring convenience and concern

At least one resident is concerned about the adverse effect a nearly 200-foot cellular tower will have on his health and property values, but the chairman of the county's Board of Zoning Appeals said the project has fulfilled all the necessary requirements and will be built.

The Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals approved the construction of a 199-foot cellular tower on Backwoods Road in Westminster on Oct. 28. The property is zoned as agricultural in the county's master plan, but this designation has a number of stipulations, one of which allows for a utility tower, said Brian DiMaggio, chairman of the BZA.

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Verizon Wireless made a request for the tower earlier this year. The tower design includes a 195-feet monopole with a 4-foot antenna array attached with an accompanying equipment shelter and backup generator all inside of a 50-square-foot fenced compound.

In order for such a tower to be considered by the BZA, a number of criteria had to be met, DiMaggio said.

The need for such a tower had to be identified. One of the expert witnesses called by Verizon, Marc A. Marzullo, said both Verizon and a third-party reviewer for the county agreed a cell tower was needed in the area to eliminate a dead spot in coverage. The proposed tower also needed to be able to link with existing towers in the area. That capability was proved with balloon testing, which involves placing a balloon at the highest point of the proposed tower and ensuring that the line of sight from other towers was uninterrupted.

Once these conditions were met, Verizon asked the BZA to consider approving the tower. The law dictates that any such decision must be accompanied by a public hearing to allow residents to voice their concerns, DiMaggio said, which was held Oct. 28.

One resident, Larry Shockney, who lives less than 300 feet from the proposed site of the tower, said his concerns included health risks to nearby homeowners and a lack of due diligence from Verizon in researching the potential effects the tower could have on nearby property value.

"One witness made a statement that there are no health hazards with these towers, but research I've seen shows mixed reactions," Shockney said. "I asked the man if he was a doctor or a scientist and he said no. They had also not done research to determine the effect of their other cell towers in the area on residents nearby."

Another expert witness said the value of Shockney's property could actually go up as a result of the construction of a tower. Shockney said he asked whether any research had been conducted to identify how many potential buyers he had lost because of the tower.

"The answer was no," Shockney said. "Come spring, I'm going to try to sell this house. I'm not going to live near something like this."

This is not the first time that a proposed cellular tower has come under fire from residents in Carroll County, DiMaggio said. Another tower proposed earlier this year located on Coon Club Road in Westminster received heavy criticism. Resident concerns were the same as those for the tower on Backwoods Road, he said.

That tower was approved by the BZA on Sept. 30.

"My heart goes out to these people," DiMaggio said. "They are upset because they don't understand the process."

The BZA is not allowed to consider potential health risks when siting a tower because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, he said. Its purpose is to prevent any such decisions from being based on unscientific or irrational fears. As long as the proposed facility meets Federal Communications Commission's regulations concerning emissions, health concerns are not considered substantial enough evidence to deny the construction of a tower, DiMaggio said.

"Telecommunications experts have spoken and said resonance waves from cellular towers are far less dense than cellphones and even household microwaves," DiMaggio said.

As for the idea that a cellular tower could adversely affect a property's value, DiMaggio said he chose to live on a property with a cell tower.

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"This might affect some people's buying decision but not mine and not others' necessarily," DiMaggio said.

In order for cellular towers to successfully fill gaps in coverage while being financially viable, he said, service providers must collocate. For example, when Verizon builds the tower on Backwoods Road, it will lease the tower's signal to two other providers — such as AT&T and Sprint — to make a profit. This has the added benefit of limiting the number of towers needed to provide coverage.

Verizon, he said, has been very considerate of residents' concerns and has taken certain steps that are not required, such as building monopole towers rather than tri-pole and even painting the towers blue to blend with the sky and make them less of an eyesore.

If Verizon constructed a tower more than 200 feet tall, it could also utilize a fourth carrier, thereby making an even greater profit, he said, but the company would also need to install flood lights to warn low-flying aircraft of the tower's position.

"The reason they have chosen not to is due to their desire to be respectful to the surrounding community," DiMaggio said.

The BZA is a legal necessity to allow such adaptations to the master plan, DiMaggio said. Verizon will now have to get the proper approvals from the county before construction can begin. The time it takes to gain the appropriate permits can vary greatly as a result of many factors, he said, and it is too early to guess at when construction could begin.

But it will be constructed, he said.

"Somebody is going to have a cell tower in their backyard," DiMaggio said. "This is just a part of our lives as telephone and cable wires outside our homes are today."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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