Dayton farmer proposes cell tower on grain silo

A Dayton farmer wants to maximize revenues from his planned grain silo by leasing space atop it to a cellular company. His neighbors in homes along Big Branch Drive oppose the project, saying their cell service is fine and the unsightly antennae will disrupt their view of rolling fields.

The Howard County Council will have to weigh the farmer's property rights with those of his neighbors.

The council will review lengthy testimony on the issue that highlights the clash between agriculture and suburbia before voting next month.

Ricky Bauer, whose 122-acre farm is in the county's land preservation program, wants to build the 135-foot-high silo on a small parcel of his property and allow T-Mobile to install 10-foot-tall antennae on its roof. Neighbors said they could accept a silo but complained about the eyesore created by numerous cell towers less than 500 feet from their homes. They also said additional wireless equipment was unnecessary, given the availability of service and quality of reception throughout the neighborhoods west of Route 32.

"The service is excellent and widely available," said Rick Lober, president of the Big Branch Community Association. "There is no public interest or benefit here. It only benefits T-Mobile at the expense of the ag community."

Gregory E. Rapisarda, an attorney for T-Mobile, said a coverage deficiency exists and collocating cell equipment on the silo will let the company improve wireless service for voice, data and streaming visual content to customers. The proposal is also in keeping with the county code, he said.

"The code requires collocating on an existing structure, before building a new tower," he said. "The silo is the best thing for collocating, and you have the zoning regulations that allow this."

Of the criticism that it would be unsightly, Howard Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said, "I think housing developments are most unpleasing to the eye. The need for coverage is in the public interest."

The residents lack an understanding of the farmers' need to make a living from the land, he said. Cell towers are an acceptable use even on preserved farmland, as long as the farmer reimburses the county for removal of land of less than 1 acre from the preservation program. In this case, Bauer would repay the county about $300 for the 875-square-foot parcel that would be the site of the silo and the cellular equipment.

"We can't allow neighborhoods to dictate to us," Feaga said. "Our land is here to stay and we want to stay with it."

Bauer, who has been farming for about 20 years, said he ended a hog operation a few years ago when neighbors complained of odors. He has about 800 acres, much of it leased, in grain crops. Farms are also suffering in the recession and must diversify to succeed, he said.

"We have to make a profit to survive," he said. "Two years ago, corn was selling for almost double today's prices."

Numerous farms in the county have leased space for cell towers and are reaping those revenues. His proposal would place towers near his existing buildings, where they would not take up arable space. He has chosen the most appropriate site on his property, although several council members asked if he would consider relocating the tower.

"Honor our easements," Bauer told the council. "We have signs that say 'Farmland Forever.' But these people think it should be 'Open Space Forever.' "

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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