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Carroll judge clears way for tower


A Carroll County judge has cleared the way for construction of a 200-foot telecommunications tower on conservation land outside the town of Sykesville.

In an opinion issued yesterday, Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. ruled that West Shore Communications Inc., contract builder for Cellular One, had "acquired vested rights" to build the tower. The judge lifted a stop-work order imposed by the county Oct. 31 and said construction can resume immediately.

Mark Sapperstein, vice president of West Shore, said yesterday he was unsure whether he would wait forfurther court appeals before completing the tower.

The county, the town of Sykesville and Kathy Blanco-Losada, a homeowner near the tower site, had appealed decisions of the Board of Zoning Appeals to the circuit court.

"An appeal [to a higher court] is the only thing left," said Ms. Blanco-Losada, who has spent more than $10,000 of her own money fighting the project. She has asked neighbors to help with expenses. "I would hope that since we have come this far, we will take the last step.

An appeal, which could take a year to reach the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, must be filed within 30 days. The county could also ask for a stay of construction, until the higher court hears the appeal.

Mr. Sapperstein said he planned to review the ruling with his attorney before deciding whether to build and risk having to tear down the tower or wait for the appeals process.

"This has been a long, long process through several zoning hearings and appeals," said Mr. Sapperstein. "Each followed the same course and the information has not changed. We have not done anything other than what was originally approved."

The project, announced two years ago, has been mired in controversy and has been the subject of several appeals. With a building permit issued Friday, Oct. 28, West Shore immediately began construction on property it had leased from homeowners on Hollenberry Road.

"It is obvious that West Shore, aware of the political controversy and uncertainty surrounding its proposal, proceeded to expedite the project by immediately commencing construction," Judge Burns wrote. "It proceeded after obtaining the necessary building permit, and that there was nothing to prevent it from constructing on Saturday and Sunday, if it so desired."

Crews worked until about midday Monday, Oct. 31, when the previous board of commissioners arrived on the site, enacted an ordinance prohibiting towers in residential areas and issued a stop-work order.

"West Shore had acquired vested rights at the time the ordinance was enacted," Judge Burns wrote in yesterday's opinion.

The county issued the building permit "after careful and full review by its building permits department," he wrote. "At no time has any agency of Carroll County stated or indicated that the permit was invalidated for any reason other than the adoption of Ordinance 122."

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who took office nearly six weeks after the stop-work order was issued, has opposed the project since its inception. He said he was not surprised at the court's ruling but he decried the indecision of his predecessors on the board.

"It is unfortunate that this situation ever occurred in the first place," said Mr. Brown. "I wish the county had acted in a timely fashion two years ago, instead of stopping a man with his shovel in the ground. It is frustrating because the ordinance was ready literally weeks prior to the construction."

Mr. Brown planned to confer with county attorneys before recommending further action.

Sykesville Town Manager Matthew H. Candland said the town was "very disappointed" in the decision.

"We thought we had a good, strong case," said Mr. Candland. "Obviously, the town will review the issue at our meeting Monday."

The new ordinance, which does not apply to previously approved towers, also requires a fall zone -- the area in which the tower could land if it fell intact -- equal to the height of the tower plus a 200-foot buffer. The Sykesville tower would be within 200 feet of existing homes.

Mr. Brown also took issue with Cellular One, which was adamant in its pursuit of the Sykesville site.

"Cell-One's is not an attitude of someone who wants to be part of the community," he said.

The communications company, a subsidiary of Southwestern Bell, has had "so many opportunities to negotiate other options," said Ms. Blanco-Losada. "They simply don't care about the people who live here and who are left to deal with the consequences."

"The tower will support the community and continue to benefit it in many ways," said Julie Rosenthal, director of public relations for Cellular One. "Despite the controversy, it will be a valuable tool."

Cellular One had offered the county free space on the tower for its emergency operations. But county officials are negotiating for antenna sites on towers at Springfield Hospital Center, said Mr. Brown.

"Hell will freeze over before the county uses the Sykesville tower," he said.

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