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Power of Towers

                                  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
                             location rules.

                             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
                             county officials.

                             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
                             in time.

                             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.