The Howard County Board of Appeals approved last night a 250-foot communications tower near the Alpha Ridge Landfill, despite an 11th-hour plea by a group of Marriottsville residents to delay the decision.
The zoning exception sought for the tower by Nextel Communications Inc. was the latest in a flood of such requests from cellular telephone and pager companies, rushing to meet a booming demand for wireless communication in the county.
Using negotiation and new regulations, county officials have tried to limit the proliferation of towers and thick metal poles for cellular antennas.
But their efforts were too late for Marriottsville, said Donald L. Gill, a Marriottsville resident who represented about 15 people who opposed the tower.
"The county couldn't get its act together, the company wouldn't wait, and the Board of Appeals didn't understand what was going on," he said.
Mr. Gill, a well-known opponent of the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill near the tower site, argued that the tower would be a "devastating" additional blow to the area. Homes have been threatened by ground water contamination from the landfill, and the area's rural character will be marred by a 150-foot water tower the county plans to build on the western edge of the landfill property, he said.
By a 4-0 vote, the board approved a site for the tower on a farm just west of the landfill. The board said the company could build a 200-foot tower but could not build the additional 50 feet unless the county government needed it.
Dr. Gill said a site on the landfill would not be as harmful to area homes.
Matthew D. Foosaner, zoning manager for Nextel Communications of the Mid-Atlantic Inc., said the county initially rejected its request to use the landfill as a site for its tower. Later, he said, county officials encouraged the company to build the tower on the farm, possibly as a platform for a new antenna for the county's emergency services radio system.
Mr. Gill testified that county officials told him that they planned to move ahead with plans to build their own tower of between 300 feet and 350 feet on the landfill property.
Mr. Foosaner said the county had not notified his company of any such plans.
County Public Works Director James M. Irvin, reached by telephone last night, said that the new radio system was in the planning stage and that officials were waiting to see if the Nextel tower was approved before deciding how to proceed.
The county already has 30 communications towers and poles, ranging from 30 feet to 500 feet tall, with most in the 100- to-250-foot range. There are eight new towers or poles planned, most of them awaiting Board of Appeals approval.
Under rules approved last week by the County Council, companies wouldn't need to go through a lengthy approval process if they place the antennas where county officials want them.
After Sept. 5, when the rules go into effect, Nextel could build a tower up to 200 feet tall on the farm without a zoning exception because the farm is zoned for rural conservation. Such towers or poles could also be built without approval on commercially zoned property.
Nextel representatives appeared frustrated during last night's hearing, and repeatedly said their plans were tailored to satisfy both the county's need for a new communications tower and officials' desire to limit the number of new towers in the county.
In May, the company changed its request from a 199-foot pole to a 250-foot tower, saying it wanted to add strength to its structure to allow other companies to share it and add height to provide the county with the platform it needed.
In changing its request, "Nextel tried to be a good citizen . . . to accommodate the county with its 911 usage" said David Carney, Nextel's attorney.
But Mr. Gill argued that the county had not told the board what its plans were and that the board should delay its decision until it found out.