With more than 150 towers already countywide, a
few Hillsborough residents are fed up and will
seek more changes in location rules.
By TIM GRANT
© St. Petersburg Times
T he scenario is becoming more and more familiar around
Hillsborough County: A homeowner returns from work one
day to discover a crane and work crew erecting a giant cellular
telephone antenna tower in the neighborhood.
Outrage follows. "It's going to ruin our property values." "It's an ugly
eyesore." "Why didn't we know about this before now?" "How could
the county let this happen?"
But the homeowners, and their local government officials, largely
have had to sit on their hands in the shadows of the 180-250 foot
towers -- though they can call more people, more reliably, to
complain on their cellular phones.
Grassroots activism in northwest Hillsborough County led to some
preliminary safeguards earlier this year. For instance, nearby land
owners are supposed to get notice of future tower applications, and
there will be clearer rules about how close towers can be to homes.
But so far, the effectiveness of changes to the Land Development
Code remains to be seen; many towers were already permitted
before they took effect. Tower opponents want even more
protection for homeowners, but the wireless industry says radical
overhaul isn't necessary.
Both sides are headed for a showdown next year when the County
Commission considers whether to make additional changes in tower
The rule changes earlier this year were too late to help Original
Carrollwood residents who watched a 180-foot tower arise on N
Dale Mabry Highway in September. And they didn't stop a 200-foot
steel lattice tower from sprouting amidst the foliage surrounding
Island Ford Lake in Keystone this month.
"It's like someone put up a giant billboard," said Jerry Cosentino, a
Tampa physician who lives on Crescent Road. "It totally destroys the
pristine nature of the lake."
Those towers were approved before the new rules went into effect
on July 22. Records show five more towers were also approved
before that date, including two more planned for northwest
Hillsborough: one on Woodstock Road in Keystone and one at the
southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and U.S 41 in Lutz.
"Developers of these towers prior to the July effective date were
allowed to do anything they wanted to do," said anti-tower activist
Tom Aderhold of Odessa. "These towers are an illustration of the
mad rush to get applications submitted prior to the effective date of
the residential protection amendment."
Since then, only five tower requests have been filed, according to
The protection homeowners now have in the land development code,
is only a first step toward Aderhold's larger goals. He and his wife,
Barbara Dowling, and other homeowners are seeking greater
setbacks from homes and other changes aimed at protecting the
integrity of neighborhoods. They'll argue their position to the County
Commission at code amendment hearings, probably in March. The
hearings were originally set for December, but had to be delayed
because staff couldn't review tower and other proposed amendments
With more than 150 towers, and counting, Hillsborough is not the
only cell phone tower battle ground. Communities everywhere are
trying to regulate tower proliferation. There are about 200 towers in
Pinellas County, 100 in Pasco, 30 in Hernando and even about 15 in
rural Citrus County.
Most were built in the past two years. When the federal government
deregulated the wireless communications industry with the passage of
the Telecommunications Act of 1996, more companies formed and
bought frequencies at auctions held by the Federal Communications
The Florida Association of Counties has reported the state can
expect 80,000 towers by the year of 2000.
"We haven't even scratched the surface of the problems this industry
presents to our communities," said Aderhold, who predicts many
more towers are in Hillsborough's future. "It is going to be
As more people rely on cellular technology, more towers will be
Radio communication systems are like a honeycomb pattern of cells,
each one requiring an antenna to assure seamless coverage. As usage
increases, the cells get smaller and antennas more numerous. By
now, the towers are encroaching on residential areas.
"It's not that companies are putting towers wherever they want to.
They're putting them where they need to," said Laura Belflower, a
Tampa attorney who represents PrimeCo Personal Communications.
She also said that tower needs have probably leveled off, as most
carriers have their initial facilities in place. She said most carriers also
try to locate antennas on existing towers, light poles or buildings
before resorting to the cost of putting up a new tower.
"A lot of jurisdictions were worried they were going to look like
porcupines," Belflower said, "but that hasn't happened."
While zoning laws can greatly restrict where most commercial
ventures operate, they don't apply equally to cellular phone antenna
towers. That's because Congress, in an effort to foster the growth of
an industry seen as good for the nation and its economy, prevented
local governments from interferring with the rights of wireless
companies to compete in the market. Denying a tower application
could be interpreted as interference.
But there is still room left for local regulation.
Led by Aderhold and Dowling, homeowners in the northwest county
have prompted Hillsborough officials to take whatever steps they
The Odessa couple became tower activists when they learned that
one was planned for Hutchison Road near their home. At a public
hearing, they successfully argued it was incompatible with their rural
But on their way home from that very hearing, they saw a work crew
erecting another cellular phone tower on a different stretch of
"It was like a slap in the face," Aderhold said. "Here we are up at the
county arguing our hearts out about towers and they didn't even tell
Aderhold discovered it had been permitted illegally. Although towers
may go just about anywhere, the tower owner must prove there is a
need for an additional tower.
Further investigation showed none of the towers permitted in
Hillsborough County had filed certificates of need. In fact, county
records on towers were in disarray and incomplete. Staff members in
Permit Services had little knowledge of how tower technology
worked and had relied heavily on the industry to police themselves.
Records show 151 towers have been permitted in Hillsborough
County, however Permit Services has only pinpointed 103 of them
on its master map. The last time they updated records was more than
three months ago, said department director Mike Allgire, who admits
department records are outdated.
"My instructions to staff is to update the map every month so we can
deal with issues of tower proximity," Allgire said.
His records show 137 towers in the county, and probably more
approved through planned development. He could not locate
specifics of those approvals early this week.
County information on towers may seem unclear now, but it was
worse when Aderhold first began looking for answers.
"When people complain to us about a tower we tell them to go look
at the paperwork downtown," Aderhold said. "Chances are there
have been mistakes. How we win is we catch them at it."
Since their declaration of war on cell towers, Aderhold and his wife
have stopped another tower that had been given a permit on
Hutchison Road across from the entrance of Belle Glen subdivision.
The county withdrew permit approval after the couple pointed out
the tower violated county setback rules.
Eventually they helped prove that the 180-foot tower at 15610
Hutchison Road also was illegally permitted. Omni America then got
a variance after the fact, but in June the board of adjustment ruled the
variance, too, was improperly granted. Omni has appealed that
decision to circuit court, where the case is pending.
If it has to come down, it might be the first one ever dismantled.