YOU COULD CALL it the Towering Inferno. Not the mega-disaster movie of a few decades ago, but the dilemma for Carroll County from a proliferation of infernal telecommunications towers across the rural landscape.
The Board of Zoning Appeals, ever eager to turn farmland into commercial enterprise, two weeks ago approved the third conditional-use zoning variance for Sprint PCS to erect a 258-foot tower on a Melrose farm, north of Manchester. The three-member board did not just disappoint residents who showed up at a public hearing to protest the environmental insult. The board stuck its collective thumb in their eyes, by magnanimously granting the corporate giant permission to build closer to property lines than specified by zoning law.
All told, Sprint plans to put up seven huge towers in Carroll, buying or leasing the sites from owners of farmland. In addition, the company plans to attach eight more antennas on existing towers or water tanks to complete its network in the county.
Sprint is just one of the various, competing wireless communications companies that are carpeting America with these infernal towers. By next year, the National League of Cities predicts, some 120,000 such towers will blossom across the country.
Deregulation of the telecommunications industry, and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, has encouraged this technical and economic competition. Even though the law regulates the number of authorized wireless providers, through the Federal Communications Commission, the near future could see a half-dozen companies scrambling to get tower space in the metro Baltimore area.
Federal law leaves zoning decisions to the localities. But these jurisdictions must not discriminate among competing service providers, must not automatically ban any telecom towers and must respond in writing, in timely manner, to antenna requests.
The law also declares the towers to be safe in their radio emissions -- a common, if unfounded, objection to the structures.
Cellular not universal
Everything is not cellular, despite universal use of the term for wireless communications.
Cellular telephone service has been around for years. It operates with a series of low-powered transmitters that transfer calls from one cell to the adjacent one, maintaining uninterrupted call connection as the caller with a portable phone moves through the service area.
PCS (Personal Communications Services) is a newer competing technology. It uses high-frequency, broadband transmitters with digital transmission. This system usually requires more antenna sites than cellular because its higher frequency reduces the effective area of connection coverage. Sprint PCS is, obviously, a PCS provider.
Sprint got the board of Zoning Appeals' permission in July to build two towers, near Manchester and near Hampstead. Last month, the Melrose site was approved. Two more sites, to the west of Westminster, are scheduled for public hearing Sept. 28. Another proposed tower, north of Westminster, will have a hearing the following day.
Because a telecommunications tower is a "conditional" use of agricultural land, a hearing is required. But the BZA makes its own decision to approve or deny the request, based on the record.
Board too compliant
What's troubling is the board's willingness to grant any variance that the tower company requests.
In two cases, the board allowed the towering structures to be built much closer to neighbor property lines than is standard. In the Melrose case, the board's excuse was that the structure would be placed by woods, making it less intrusive on the landscape.
In Silver Run, the board said the presence of a chicken manure pit on the farmland limited the space where the transmission tower could be placed. The board wouldn't even consider telling Sprint to find another site that would meet the minimum construction setback standards.
Alton Dutterer, who would find the 258-foot structure only 78 feet from his adjacent land in Silver Spring, went to court to overturn the BZA. He says the location of the tower would pose a safety threat to his property should the structure fall. He also argues that it could lower his property's value.
There's no doubt that an antenna tower is not the most aesthetic addition to a neighborhood. But it's far from clear whether it would cause land values to drop. Requiring strict setbacks is another matter: the board should stick to the ordinance, because communications firms have a lot of choice over where to construct a tower.
The greater danger for Carroll County, which always talks big about its farmland protection effort, is that more wireless competitors will seek equal legal treatment in siting their antennas here.
The BZA has expressed, belatedly, a concern about further petitions for these towers. That will have to be decided, within the non-discrimination section of federal law, by the commissioners.
Meantime, the zoning appeals body should stop looking at fields of telecom towers as if they were just another farm crop.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.