Finding that the risks of building a cell phone tower near tennis courts and athletic fields at Randallstown High School were too great, the Baltimore County Board of Appeals overturned yesterday a zoning commissioner's ruling to allow the project.
The three-member panel debated the proposal for about an hour before unanimously agreeing that T-Mobile should not be allowed to lease a patch of land on the high school campus to build the tower.
"I don't think a school is an appropriate place for a cell tower," said Margaret M. Brassil, chairwoman of the panel considering the cell tower case. "I hate to say this, but it's kind of like the old smell test. It just smells bad."
Community activists who attended the panel's public deliberation session yesterday and who have fought plans for the 11-story tower's construction expressed satisfaction.
"I'm very pleased," said Aaron Plymouth, immediate past president of Randallstown High's Parent Teacher Student Association and the Randallstown resident who appealed the zoning commissioner's decision to allow the cell tower. "The community would have been more satisfied and less in opposition if a different location on the 42-acre property would have been chosen."
Omnipoint Communications Cap Operations and T-Mobile sought to construct a fake light pole among the school's existing outdoor lights to hold the cell phone tower. In their written filings, lawyers representing the company in the zoning case characterized the plan as a "stealth option" that provided the least intrusive means of offering cell phone coverage for the area.
The company said the new tower was needed to address "substandard coverage" along sections of Offutt and Winands roads as well as the densely populated neighborhoods that surround Randallstown High. In the absence of commercially zoned land, T-Mobile engineers determined that the school was the best and "only logical option" for a new tower because of the property's elevation, size and location.
"As many wireless customers now use mobile phones as their sole phones, residential penetration is a critical coverage objective," lawyers Karl J. Nelson and G. David Dean wrote in papers filed in the case.
The school board agreed to lease T-Mobile the necessary land for $1,500 a month for 25 years.
But area residents and community activists objected.
They expressed concern that students and others might be curious about the tower and its accompanying refrigerator-sized electrical boxes and be tempted to climb the tower or scale the 8-foot fence that would encircle the equipment.
They argued that building the cell tower on school grounds would present greater risks than constructing it some place used less frequently by children, teenagers and area residents.
And they contended that T-Mobile wanted the tower "to gain a competitive edge in the industry" rather than to address complaints from existing customers, according to written filings submitted by the deputy people's counsel for Baltimore County.
"It was a matter of greed," said Linda Dorsey-Walker, a former Randallstown High PTSA officer and area resident. "They were unconcerned if it did pose a safety issue for children."
Members of the appeals board that heard the case disagreed on whether schools are inherently unsafe locations for cell towers.
While Brassil expressed frustration that the County Council had not simply outlawed such structures on school property, board member Robert W. Witt said he was troubled only by the proposed location of this tower near Randallstown High's recreation fields, tennis courts and school entrance.
"I had nothing against them putting a tower on school property," he explained.
T-Mobile will have 30 days after the board's written decision is issued to appeal the case to the circuit court. Lawyers representing the company could not be reached yesterday.
Realizing that the issue might not be settled with this case, state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin said he still intends to introduce legislation aimed at banning cell phone towers from public school property.
"I don't think this decision prohibits it carte blanche," he said. "They could just come back and do it a different way."
T-Mobile said it has a cell phone tower identical to the one proposed for Randallstown near a baseball field at a Baltimore County elementary school as well similar facilities near schools in Montgomery and Charles counties, according to written filings.
Kara Calder, a Baltimore County schools spokeswoman, said there is a cell tower near Fullerton Elementary but that the structure does not sit on land owned by the school system.