Cell phone tower may grow near Pikesville Tree disguise offered; some residents upset about its placement


Poetically speaking, only God can make a tree. Politically, it's a different story.

Baltimore County's zoning commissioner today is expected to hear a controversial case about a 100-foot cellular phone tower that soon could sprout at Greenspring Avenue and Interstate 695 -- masquerading as a pine tree.

Proposed by Bell Atlantic-NYNEX Mobile for its customers whose cell phone connections grow weak near the Pikesville exit because of the Beltway's hilly terrain, the tower is designed to mesh with the wooded lot.

The design -- part of a national trend to disguise such towers -- is a peace offering to residents near Greenspring Avenue and Old Court Road. But the bogus botanical won't placate neighbors who plan to fight the proposal, which requires a special zoning exception.

About 20 members of Old Court-Greenspring Improvement Association Inc. plan to address county Zoning Commissioner Larry Schmidt today, in a protest that could mirror fights over cellular towers in other metropolitan counties such as Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel.

The Baltimore County residents are upset about the placement of the tower, not its design.

County regulations require that a cellular phone tower be placed on a minimum 5-acre lot and set back at least 200 feet from the lot's property line.

But the Greenspring tree-tower would be placed on a 2.6-acre lot at Old Court Road and the Beltway, and be located 104 feet from the lot's property line, said Elaine O'Mansky, vice president of the community association.

"This specific area is one-half of the minimum requirements," she said. "If it passes, all of the property in the county is in peril of being compromised."

The tower is believed to be county's first to be disguised as a tree, according to the county zoning commissioner.

Nationally, however, a move is under way to hide cellular towers in natural settings -- one company dressed a 150-foot tower in South Florida as a palm tree, while others have hidden the antennas inside church steeples and water tanks.

The Beltway's stealth antenna would be made of steel and coated with a resin that looks like the rough brown bark of a pine tree, said Audrey Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile.

The long pine needles would be made of a fiberglass that is safe for birds to nest in.

"What we are proposing is something extremely unobtrusive," Schaefer said. "We have engineers who work with the natural setting. Hopefully, it'll be a win-win-win for the company and the neighbors."

Schaefer said the tree-tower would cost about $1 million. If approved, the tower would be built by the fall.

"It's an expensive alternative for us," Schaefer said. "This is a residential community. We understand that visually, a normal site would not blend in. That's why we're taking the extra step to propose a 'tree' pole -- all you would see would be the treetops and pine needles."

Cellular telephone industry experts estimate that up to 115,000 new cell sites, or antennas attached to a high tower, will be needed by 2000 in response to the growing popularity of cell phones.

The towers, though, must be located near the sites where they are heavily used -- such as highways, dense urban areas or communities that border heavily traveled roads such as the Beltway.

Some residents who live near the sites have voiced concern about reports linking electromagnetic radiation from the cellular towers to brain tumors and leukemia, which cellular phone companies dispute.

"We are trying to serve the local community and Interstate 695," Schaefer said.

"When we propose something like this, we want to keep the goodwill of the community and be good neighbors. This is a very special approach."

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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