Nextel Communications Inc., one of the smaller cellular telephone companies, is leading the way in Howard County in trying to help curb the proliferation of communications towers.
Last week, the New Jersey-based company became the first to respond to county planners' urging to put such structures on county property and build them strong enough to hold other antennas. It asked for a special zoning exception for a proposed 250-foot, three-sided, latticework tower off U.S. 1 near Savage.
Besides being strong enough to accommodate other cellular companies' equipment, the tower will offer a prime location for a new antenna for the county police, fire and rescue radio system.
The rapidly growing cellular phone market in the Baltimore-Washington corridor is creating a growing need for communications towers, structures that residents usually don't want near their homes. The county wants to limit their number by encouraging cellular phone companies to share them.
"All of the jurisdictions are being flooded with these things, and the people want the service," said William O'Brien, county zoning chief.
Among the cellular companies, Nextel has responded to the county's demands most quickly. In late May, it changed its plans for another proposed tower on a farm next to the county's Marriottsville landfill so that it also could accommodate several other antennas.
The company has been so quick to comply with the county's proposals that officials are struggling to keep pace.
Nevertheless, Matthew Foosaner, zoning manager for Nextel Communications of the Mid Atlantic Inc., said the county was moving as quickly as possible: "Howard County has probably moved more rapidly with a public and private goal, than any other jurisdiction in the area."
Eight requests for approval for cellular poles or towers are being reviewed by the county Department of Planning & Zoning or awaiting a hearing before the county Board of Appeals. Each needs a special zoning exception from the board.
To discourage companies from building the towers in residential neighborhoods, planners have proposed new zoning regulations. These now are before the County Council, which is scheduled to hear testimony on them June 19 and vote on them June 28.
The proposed regulations would eliminate the need for appeals board approval to place an antenna on an existing structure, such as another company's communications tower, a building or a county water tower.
At the urging of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, county
officials have been meeting with the two dominant cellular companies, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One, along with smaller competitors such as Nextel and American PCS.
The county's goal is to coordinate cellular services enough so that the companies can, in most cases, put all their antennas on a single structure to serve a given area of the county, said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director.
Although Nextel plans to build its larger Marriottsville tower on private farm property, it's possible that that tower could be built on the county landfill site, Mr. Irvin said. The county has its own communications tower on the landfill property nearby and leases space on it to Cellular One for one antenna.