The families who live in the million-dollar homes along Big Branch Road in Dayton want their cell phones, but they don't want to see a cell phone tower on Ricky and Leslie Bauer's 122-acre farm 612 feet away.
"I prefer not to look out my front door and see a porcupine of antennas," Big Branch resident Paul Robertson said at a standing-room-only community meeting Tuesday night at the Clarksville fire station. The meeting was packed with more than 70 opponents of the proposed 135-foot high T-Mobile pole.
The clash is reminiscent of many that took place in the 1990s, when cell towers proliferated in the Baltimore region. The friction also highlights the cultural divisions between suburban homeowners and farmers.
Residents said the pole, located in a stand of older trees on a small knoll, would be an eyesore. They worried their large homes' values would decline, and they were concerned over radiation's effects on health. They also said that cell service is good enough in the rural area west of Route 32 without a new pole sticking up over the Bauers' trees.
Farmer Ricky Bauer, 49, who did not attend the meeting, said Wednesday that he's just a hard-working grain farmer trying to survive on land preserved from development like the big houses on Big Branch Drive.
"I'm amazed" at the fuss, he said, recalling that when the big houses were being built a decade ago, he placed a big hand-lettered sign out warning buyers that his 50 sows and their manure sometimes produced disagreeable odors. Later, he gave up on the pigs.
But the suburbanites were angry, and fearful of the unseen energy the pole might produce.
"You're cooking them. It's a microwave oven," said resident Om Gupta, 58, who said he is a nuclear physicist.
"This is not an acceptable solution," said John Tegeris, 46, a Big Branch resident.
Gregory E. Rapisarda, a lawyer representing T-Mobile at the required community information meeting, said the company needs the tower to provide better wireless in-home service for voice, data and streaming visual content to customers. Over 18 months, the firm has found no better place to put it, he said. The next step would be a County Council vote on a resolution approving removal of the 875-square-foot parcel from the county's Agricultural Preservation program, and later a conditional-use zoning hearing on the pole. The Agricultural Preservation Board approved the move Feb. 16, though Ricky Bauer, who is a board member, recused himself.
Rapisarda exhibited photos of a red weather balloon floated at 135 feet Feb. 16 to show it could hardly be seen above the Bauers' trees. He also said that federal law prohibits local governments from denying permission for a cell tower on alleged health concerns. He added that the tower will have no lights and that studies have found towers don't harm property values. If they could have found an existing farm silo or other high structure to put antennas on, they would have done that, he said, because it's a lot quicker and cheaper.
"The No. 1 goal is speed to market," he said, explaining that T-Mobile already has antennas on the nearest towers, which are about two miles away. "We need to go in there to provide wireless coverage," he said.
Rick Lober, a Big Branch Road resident, is collecting signatures for a petition drive to oppose the pole.
Standing the next day where the pole would go up if approved, Ricky Bauer said he has lived for 20 years on the 122-acre farm. Bauer would repay the county $296.84 for removing the small parcel from the preservation program. County law allows up to 1 acre of preserved land to be removed for things such as cell towers.
"In our eyes, the pole is better than a 30-foot-round, 150-foot-tall concrete silo," he said, though neighboring farmer Phil Muth said that after negotiating with T-Mobile for months to have the antennae on his preserved farm next to Bauer's, he rejected having either a silo or the pole on his game and grain farm because of their appearance. Muth has owned the farm for two years, he said.
"We're in the business of agriculture," Bauer said. "This ground is not pleasure ground. We have to make money to stay here." Bauer said he farms 800 acres around the county, but the profit margins on grain are so small, he can't afford to turn down a chance to make a little more guaranteed money each month. Muth said the cell firms typically pay $800 to $1,000 a month per antenna. One pole can hold multiple antennae.
Bauer said the dispute has grown so heated that his 12-year-old daughter Jackie has been verbally harassed about the tower on the school bus, and there are spurious e-mails floating around about his motives. He gave up pig farming, he said, partly because of complaints about odors, though his three children, who include Andy, 14, and Danielle, 18, care for three sows and their offspring as 4-H projects.
"They're proud to be farm kids," Leslie Bauer said, despite the teasing they get from suburban children.
"I didn't like the change when they built those houses, but I never objected, even though our water level dropped 50 feet and I had to drill a new well," Ricky Bauer said. The Bauers said they doubt the pole would be very visible anyway, though some of the development homes can be seen from the pole site through bare tree limbs.
People at the meeting were adamant, however.
Health concerns may not be a legal subject for debate, but Dr. Victor Velculescu, director of Cancer Genetics at the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, weighed in anyway.
"There are studies that do show effects," he said. "I see a very clear potential for danger," he added. "We have more kids than adults here. I don't want to be a guinea pig," he said, reminding the group that no laws prohibited asbestos or smoking years ago either.
Rapisarda said people receive more radiation from the phones on their hips than they would from the tower.
Muth and Robert Burgio, 44, said they moved to the area because of its quiet, rural nature.
"I want to preserve the scenic beauty of farmland," Burgio said. His wife Deborah put it differently.
"I understand that T-Mobile is in business to make money and provide services, but the benefit to the area -- there isn't one," she said. "The benefit is to T-Mobile."
Others complained that Verizon and AT&T; don't seem to need a new tower, so why should T-Mobile? The area has very few residents, and the major traffic corridor is on Route 32 farther east, where 300-foot utility towers hold lots of antennae, they said. Insisting on erecting the new pole will not gain T-Mobile any customers, only enemies in the area, they said.
Others did not believe Rapisarda's reassurances about property values.
Sherry Stull said she's a mother of three going through a divorce and trying to sell her house on Big Branch.
"I'm going to lose the money I need to take care of these children because of your pole," she said. "I'm as good as the Bauers."