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Bel Air residents support cell tower at St. Matthew Lutheran Church

Robert Hickey has to move around his home on Linwood Avenue in Bel Air, often resorting to going outside, to use his cell phone. David Rodgers, who lives off Route 543 in Fountain Glen, sometimes has to go outside on his deck to use his.

Both men — one who lives within Bel Air town limits and one who lives outside — were among the half-dozen people who urged Bel Air town commissioners to adopt an amendment to the town code that would allow communication towers to be built in a B1 limited business district.

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TowerCo, an independent wireless tower company, is proposing to build a 150-foot communications tower on the St. Matthew Lutheran Church property in the 1200 block of Churchville Road. It would service the three major cell phone carriers and is needed to improve coverage in an area where it is dramatically lacking, lawyer Albert J. Young told three members of the Bel Air Board of Commissioners at their meeting Monday night.

“The bottom line is in this era, this day and age, good cellular service is something we all rely on, not only for personal convenience but it’s a matter of public safety at this point,” Young said.

The commissioners hosted a public hearing on the proposed zoning change, which would permit communication towers in the B1 district as a special exception, and will continue it at their next meeting, Sept. 3, so the two commissioners who were absent — Patrick Richards and Brendan Hopkins — can hear the public’s comments.

If the ordinance is approved, TowerCo would then have to submit plans to the town for approval from the Board of Appeals, according to Kevin Small, the town’s planning director.

It could be six to nine months before the tower is built, Craig Hartman, director of business development for TowerCo, said after the meeting.

No one at the hearing opposed the tower, which would be built to the rear of the St. Matthew Church building, near the community garden plots, Young said.

Coverage would improve for anyone within a mile to 1 ½-mile radius of the proposed tower, said Paul Dugan, a radio frequency consulting engineer.

According to the amendment, towers can only go on properties in the B1 district that are 2 acres or larger, Small said, and the St. Matthew property is the only one that fits that requirement. Parcels could not be combined to create a 2-acre site.

Properties with B1 zoning other than St. Matthew mostly include those on the west side of South Main Street, south of Heighe Street, Small said.

The B1 district includes small-scale local businesses and institutional service establishments, he said.

“Their use is developed to ensure compatibility with existing residential uses and provide attractive frontage linking to the town center,” Small said.

The ordinance was reviewed by the town planning commission, which recommended its approval.

It would be a monopole tower the same height as the cell tower in Bel Air Plaza, with the three major carriers staggered on the pole.

Federal law requires cell carriers to provide uniform coverage throughout the country, not just in “hot markets” where they’ll make money.

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“They have to fill in the holes everywhere,” Young said, “and there is a hole here, in the approximate location of where the tower is requested to go.”

He provided the commissioners with a letter from John Carroll School President Steve DiBiagio, who said cell coverage at the school is “erratic and unreliable” and that it’s not unusual for calls to and from campus to drop unexpectedly. Much of the work at the school has to be done by landline.

“You can imagine the frustration this causes parents, the inconvenience it causes faculty and staff, and the disruption it causes to the daily operation of the school,” DiBiagio said in the letter.

Signing a letter of support for the tower was the principal of the nearby Southampton Middle School, leaders from Harford Day School and the manager of the Seasons at Bel Air apartment complex, presented to the commissioners by Blaise Sedney, pastor of St. Matthew and a town resident.

It is also a safety issue, Young said. As more emergency responders rely on cellular technology, the more data will be required and the more it will slow down the communication. A new federal mandate as a result of 9/11 will give first responders priority in cellular use and cut off everyone else.

Hickey said he has sporadic service at his home on Linwood Avenue and worries that if he’s out in his backyard and needs to make an emergency call, it may not go through.

“There are holes, it is a problem,” Hickey said.

Ronald Wilhelm lives in the 1200 block of Corinthian Court, in the Amyclae neighborhood across from St. Matthew. He said there’s nothing more aggravating than having 1-½ to two bars of service on his cell phone.

“Sometimes it’s so bad I have to go outside to use the phone, especially in the afternoons,” Wilhelm said.

And it’s not just cell phones, it’s all electronics that use data, he added.

David Rodgers, who lives on Lochern Terrace in Fountain Glen, said he’s a consultant who works at home a lot.

“That’s really a problem when I have to move throughout the house, sometimes out onto the deck,” Rodgers said.

James Thompson moved to Bel Air a year ago and noticed problems with his cell service, particularly when he was trying to contact people in his old town in California, and he couldn’t get through.

He blamed his cellular carrier, then changed to another one and continued to have problems. He was told recently that placing cell towers was in limbo because some people don’t think they look nice, he said.

“It seems to me that the convenience of having a strategically placed tower should be more important than concern about how it looks,” Thompson said.

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