With the number of people who use wireless devices growing daily, communications firms say they need more cell towers to fill coverage gaps, even in rural places. But in western Howard County, that appears to be a hard sell.
For the second time in a month, rural county residents are expressing opposition to a T-Mobile plan to build a tall monopole on farm property, this time on a low-lying 10.5-acre farmette near Daisy. T-Mobile held a community information meeting on its proposal that drew about 40 people to the Glenwood Community Center on Wednesday night. The firm needs conditional-use zoning approval from a county hearing examiner to go ahead.
Sean P. Hughes, a lawyer representing the communications firm, told the group there are 270 million wireless users in the United States, with more coming daily, and his firm has to compete with other large carriers. Even critics of the poles concede that under county law, if T-Mobile fulfills all the technical requirements, it is likely to get zoning approval, whether residents like the pole's appearance or not.
Hillorie Morrison of T-Mobile told the crowd that the antennae would be encased in gray pods clustered on the pole to help minimize their size.
"I guess you have to have these things someplace, but most people are opposed. We didn't move out to western Howard County to look at a pole," said J. Michael Lane, who lives on the one-lane rough-surfaced shared driveway leading down a slope to the property in question. The 160-foot-high pole topped by a 4-foot lightning rod would be built between several barns and behind some trees on property owned by Steven and Lauren Fitzgerald, who did not speak at the meeting.
"We will be fighting it every step of the way," Lane said.
Last month, an angry crowd of about 75 people protested plans for another T-Mobile tower proposed on a working, preserved farm farther east in Dayton.
The frustration, said Ted Mariani, who said he owns 200 acres west of the Fitzgeralds' farmette, is that the search for "perfect coverage" by T-Mobile will lead to more towers being installed. "If everybody wants perfect coverage in every room of their home, we're going to end up with 20 of these damn towers," he said. "A lot of this area is open land," he said, adding that his family members are the only people on those 200 acres. "We don't need it." More importantly, he added later, "Where does it stop?"
But Lauren Fitzgerald said her family needs the tower for the income, which will help care for the family's oldest child, Alex, 13, who she said has a rare degenerative disease that has left him deaf, blind and using a wheelchair. He receives no public services, she said, since his condition has no treatment, though he does attend nearby Glenwood Middle School.
"One day we're not going to be here, and I don't want to have to see him in a nursing home," she said. The family needs the money from the cell tower to hire professional help to care for his daily needs. "He'll never be able to live independently," she said. "We're not talking about a baby sitter. He needs a $20-an-hour certified caregiver."
She said neighbors who are complaining don't know her family.
At the meeting, T-Mobile employees displayed maps and photos showing a weather balloon at the height of the tower that was barely visible from various nearby residential streets, but residents were adamant in their opposition.
"We get up every morning at 6 a.m. to see the sunrise, said Janice Brice, who keeps horses at her property on Jennings Chapel Road. "We live down here to live in a rural environment and ride our horses," she said.
Kim Snyder wasn't buying the balloon photos either. "You can see them for miles," she said about the high poles.
Residents complained that having the meeting while county schools were on spring break kept the crowd small. They have no problems with their cell phone reception, they said, and don't see the need for a tower.
But Hughes said the coverage is "insufficient. Quite honestly, I wish we didn't have to be here. As more and more of us start to use wireless service," he said, more towers are needed. One antenna can only service so many calls, and differences in frequencies between cell firms determine how clear and stable calling service is.
He said the pole would also help with emergency calls.
Mariani said the process favors T-Mobile, however. "It's going to be extremely tough to get a negative ruling out of the hearing examiner as long as these guys follow the rules," he said. "Appearance won't matter."