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These cell towers have something to hide

They imitate trees or belfries to send signals without miffing neighbors.

By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published April 26, 2004

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
This bell tower at George Young United Methodist Church in East Lake was built to conceal a cell tower.
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
This pine tree was built on Inman Avenue between Dale Mabry Highway and Henderson Boulevard in Tampa to hide an antenna.

OLDSMAR - Four large bells hang from the 160-foot tower outside George Young United Methodist Church.

But the peals of music echoing from the church on Sunday mornings are recorded. These bells don't ring. In fact, the entire structure is an elaborate disguise for a cellular telephone tower.

"Most people don't even know it's a cell tower," said Bruce Toms, the church's pastor. "All of us use cell phones today, and we'd much rather see something on church property other than one of those big ugly towers."

In St. Petersburg, the congregants of Lakeview Presbyterian Church are fighting to top a cell phone tower planned for their property with a cross. They say it will blend the 150-foot monopole into its surroundings.

But in terms of camouflage, Lakeview's proposal is downright primitive. Today, cell towers can be disguised as trees, lighthouses, cactuses, boulders - almost anything a community can imagine.

Public contempt for cell towers has hatched a whole new industry that specializes in hiding the needlelike appendages. Companies that manufacture faux trees and other landscaping for zoos or theme parks are now offering their products to the telecommunications industry as means of disguise.

A cell tower's sole purpose is to support an antenna that transmits and receives signals from cellular telephones. As long as it is tall enough to avoid obstruction from trees or buildings - typically between 100 and 200 feet - it doesn't really matter if the antenna is encased in wood, metal or a giant plastic palm tree.

"People want to be able to use their cell phones wherever they go, but they don't want to see big towers all over the place," said Bruce Joyner, an area manager for Stealth Concealment Solutions, a South Carolina company that constructs and camouflages cell phone towers on the East Coast. "That's where we come in."

* * *

The Larson Company specializes in illusion. The Arizona company has created artificial landscapes for zoos, hotels and theme parks around the world, from Disney's Animal Kingdom to the MGM Grand Casino to the Mall of America.

In the mid 1990s, Larson found another use for its fake trees and rocks: camouflaging cell towers.

"It seemed like a very feasible, reasonable thing to do," said Jon Mitchell, sales director for Larson Camouflage. "There was certainly a demand."

The company says it was the first to hide a cell antenna in a fake pine tree. Today, it has disguised towers all over the country, from grain silos in Wisconsin to water towers in southern California and saguaro cactuses in Arizona.

The structures are made from polymers such as urethane and polyethylene, and are designed to withstand high winds, so as not to interrupt cellular signals.

Other companies followed Larson's lead. Preserved Treescapes International, located in San Diego, hides the towers in pine, palm or leafy trees. Omaha-based Valmont Industries uses trees, church steeples or flag poles.

In 2001, Goff Communications built a 120-foot pine tree on Inman Avenue between Dale Mabry Highway and Henderson Boulevard in Tampa. It was built to conceal an antenna used by Nextel and Verizon.

The big issue is cost. These stealth methods can add $100,000 or more to the price of a tower, an expense typically passed on to cellular customers.

"Most companies just look for a different location," said Jim Fryer, the industry's main data tracker and president of TowerSource.com. "They'd rather not build anything at all than something that's going to be so expensive."

Jeffrey Laudin, a manager with Valmont, estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the towers his company builds are camouflaged by a structure such as a tree or a boulder.

"About the only time the structures are used is when a company is very concerned about aesthetics and they have a location that really needs coverage," he said.

Most cellular telephone companies first look for ways to "co-locate" an antenna, or attach it to an existing structure. For example, an antenna could be attached to a skyscraper, a parking deck or a competitor's tower.

"We usually decide on a case-by-case basis," said Nanci Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Sprint. "But for us, co-location is usually our first option and the most desirable."

If that's not possible, the company will search for different options, including concealment. In Florida, Sprint has built several trees and constructed a bell tower in Deerfield Beach to conceal antennas, Schwartz said.

A more affordable solution, according to Laudin, is using a cell tower as a flag pole. It's also simpler to maintain and offers more opportunities for use by other cell companies.

It's a common practice across the country. But that's not an option in St. Petersburg, where it is illegal to put any advertising or signage on a cell tower. According to Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn, that includes a flag - or a cross.

* * *

Verizon first proposed building a 150-foot tower on the grounds of Lakeview Presbyterian in early 2003. Church leaders were receptive. Verizon agreed to pay the church an undisclosed amount of money to use the property, which the church says it can use to further its mission.

The tower, including the cross, was approved by the Environmental Development Commission, a city-appointed board that approves development issues such as site plans and variances.

But the plan was later axed by the city's legal department, which said allowing a cross on a cell tower could open a constitutional conundrum.

"The First Amendment doesn't allow us to distinguish between crosses and swastikas," Winn said. "If one group gets to put up a cross, then the other gets to put up a swastika."

Church members and Verizon executives were angered. They're still trying to persuade the city to change its decision.

City Council member Bill Foster jumped into the dispute, asking the administration to consider changing the cell tower ordinance.

"I am offended by the notion that a cross, Star of David, military or Masonic insignia located at the appropriate location on private property is considered advertising," Foster wrote in a memo to his council colleagues.

Foster backed off his initial request to allow the city's legal department time to research how other communities handle the issue. But he's not planning to drop the topic, and wants the administration to look into finding more effective ways of concealing the towers.

Currently, the city's only camouflage requirement is to hide the antenna in a monopole.

"The only goal for us, as a city, is to erect a cell tower that is camouflaged and acceptable to the community," Foster said. "We're going to have to pursue that."

As for the congregants of Lakeview Presbyterian, they may have to settle for a plain, white pole. But Dan Lewis, chairman of the business administration committee of the church, said the fight could continue. Verizon officials are considering taking the city to court to challenge its definition of a sign.

"This isn't just about our tower any more," Lewis said. "This is something that affects the whole city."

- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 26, 2004, 01:10:13]


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