It is a common sight in major metropolitan areas: drivers sitting in traffic with a cellular phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. As they travel through city streets and on highways, they conduct business, check in with their spouses and children, and make dinner reservations. They are able to accomplish so much from a moving vehicle because of the cellular antennae that dot most city landscapes and threaten to overwhelm municipalities.

As demands for wireless communication services have risen in recent years, providers are doing anything and everything to guarantee that service to paying customers. In their zeal to increase their business, some companies have trampled their host cities' zoning ordinances and even violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TA), which guarantees the rights of local governments in tower siting disputes. As a result, cities and counties are surveying their available land, enacting cellular-specific ordinances, fighting companies in court (and sometimes losing), and finding ways to compromise.

Cellular growth

According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), Washington, D.C., cellular service subscribers totaled 66 million in 1998, up from 48 million in 1997. Safety is a primary reason why people subscribe; there were 98,000 calls made to 911 each day from mobile phones in 1998.

As demand increases and services become cheaper, the number of users - and the number of antennae - will continue to grow. "People want these services, and that is determining not only that there is growth, but where the growth is," says Christine Malone, CEO of Voorhees, N.J.-based CompComm, a wireless communications consultant. "It used to be that cell phones were the yuppie thing, but it's really becoming a much more ubiquitous product. Everybody's got a cell phone now - small business owners, plumbers, parents."

In order to provide continuous service to mobile customers, providers must install the necessary transmitters/antennae. Each transmitter covers an area known as a "cell." As the customer travels throughout different cells, the signal bounces from one antenna to the next.

In urban areas, there is no shortage of tall structures - such as office buildings or highway overpasses - on which to place antennae. (Height requirements vary from 30 feet to 300 feet or more.) However, in suburban and rural areas, the number of tall structures diminishes, creating a need to build towers on which to place the antennae.

Most cities have zoning ordinances that address building or structural height limitations, setback requirements and divisions between commercial and residential areas. Since cellular towers are still relatively new, however, existing zoning ordinances may not specifically address them, seemingly providing a window through which companies sneak in tower or antenna construction.

In Upper Dublin Township, Pa., for example, residents got an unwanted antenna directly adjacent to a neighborhood because of unclear zoning. Shortly after the passage of the TA, the township's board of commissioners adopted an ordinance that restricted antenna siting to pre-existing tall structures in residential areas. It also required companies to place antennae at the minimum height necessary to provide service, but it did not address setbacks. Seeking to place an antenna, one company chose a water tower, located 30 feet from residential property lines, as its location.

According to Commissioner Jules Mermelstein, the water tower already was a source of displeasure to the residents because it was situated so close to their homes. The city code enforcement officer approved the antenna permit, further upsetting local residents. The neighborhood appealed the permit decision at a Zoning Hearing Board in February 1998, but the board ruled in favor of the company.

"We're stuck with it," Mermelstein says. "But we won't get any more towers." Shortly after the residents lost the appeal, the board of commissioners approved a tighter ordinance, which prohibits the location of cell sites within 500 feet of any residentially zoned property.

The 'NIMBY' factor

Concern for property values is one factor driving the establishment of the ordinances. Setback requirements prevent residents from having cellular towers in their backyards, or even in their line of sight. The ordinances may protect residents' interests, but enacting those ordinances actually conflicts with the demand for cellular service.

The conflict results in a "not in my backyard" situation, says John Sieber, vice president of engineering for CompComm. "They're demanding the services, but they don't want the means to deliver the services," he says. "The issue that gets communities upset is aesthetics. There's a lot of concern about property values."

In 1994, a couple in Bunker Hill Village, Texas, filed suit against the city for allowing construction of a 100-foot cellular tower 22 feet from their backyard fence. Although the tower, built on city property, was approved by city officials, the couple argued that their home had depreciated in value by 10 percent since its arrival. They also claimed a loss of privacy because employees climbed the tower for regular maintenance.

In October 1998, the city settled its portion of the suit with the couple. Earlier this year, a jury ordered the company that owned the tower to pay $1.2 million to the couple. Residents and officials also are concerned about possible negative health effects caused by radiation emission from the towers. The Federal Communications Commission has set standards for emissions, and the TA requires that cellular towers meet those standards. However, some residents say that is not good enough.

In 1997, a group of concerned residents in Boca Raton, Fla., united as Families Against Cell Towers (FACT) to protest the installation of a cellular tower on a school property. They claimed that there is not enough evidence to prove that the emissions are safe for children.

Most studies are conducted on adult males, whose body weights differ vastly from those of third-graders, FACT notes. "It is our belief that the key issue is not proving irrevocably that the cell towers are dangerous, which we believe they are, but instead showing that significant health questions and concerns are being raised across the United States, and we need to protect our children and halt the cell tower's construction until we know more," said FACT spokesperson Gary Brown on a local web site.

Fighting the good fight

Other than fighting companies after the fact, city and county officials can prevent cellular towers from invading their neighborhoods through proper planning and zoning, education and communication. They also can find ways to compromise with the service providers. The TA is one of the best weapons in the tower-siting fight, according to Bob Fogel with the National Association of Counties, Washington, D.C. Based on input from NACo and others, the TA preserves local authority on the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless service facilities, with some limitations: * Local authorities cannot discriminate among providers of "functionally equivalent" services. For example, if one company builds a 50-foot tower and another company wants to build an identical tower, the city would have to allow it, Fogel says. * Local authorities cannot prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting wireless services. They must find a means to allow the services to continue, but they can require alternatives to towers. * When requests for permits or authorizations are filed by companies, local authorities must act "within a reasonable period of time." * Any rejection of a request must be in writing and must be supported by substantial evidence in a written record. * Local authorities cannot reject a request for service based exclusively on health concerns, provided that the facilities meet FCC standards for emissions.

In addition to familiarizing themselves with the TA, local governments need to revise or create ordinances that deal specifically with cellular towers, according to Mermelstein. As he learned, if the ordinance does not include enough details, cities can get stuck with towers they do not want. "Municipalities that don't have a cellular ordinance should quickly get one," he says. "Make it as tight an ordinance as the city solicitor will allow."

However, local governments do not have to rush through the ordinance-drafting process. For example, when Spartanburg, S.C., started receiving cellular applications in 1998, the city council instituted a moratorium to give officials time to review the situation and make plans.

"As we got into the issue, we realized we didn't have a clear understanding of city locations," says City Planning Manager Bob Klute. The city commissioned a siting study to identify properties with existing communications equipment and potential sites for cellular devices. Officials also investigated cellular service requirements.

In April, the city approved a new ordinance that includes setback requirements for towers with relation to residential areas. "The ordinance was designed not to prohibit, but to restrict," Klute says. "So far, it has worked the way we want it to."

The city also encourages "co-location," whereby multiple providers share a single tower by placing several antennae on it. Providers also can co-locate on existing power lines.

Negative impacts

Even with careful planning and zoning ordinances, cities are not immune to problems resulting from cellular tower construction. As the lawsuit in Bunker Hill Village illustrates, residents can and will take action against cities that approve towers without first doing some community outreach.

In Wellington, Fla., officials learned that lesson the hard way. According to former Deputy Village Manager Keith Stahley, in 1996, officials approved the construction of a tower on village-owned property near a residential area, but they did not communicate with the residents beforehand.

"When the tower went up, residents literally went ballistic," Stahley says. "Our mistake was not having a public hearing and not notifying the residents. We looked at it as a monetary opportunity and didn't look at the negative impact."

To avoid potential suits from residents, Wellington instead found a new site at a nearby polo stadium. Furthermore, the city is paying for the relocation of the tower. "It is a financial burden we are willing to bear," Stahley says. "The tower was completely unacceptable to our residents."

The relocation will be completed by this fall. The refurbished tower will be disguised as a 175-foot flagpole.

Compromises

When providers are determined to erect towers and cities oppose them, compromising through stealth techniques or financing usually can make everyone happy. Stealth, or camouflage, techniques include disguising the cell towers or hiding them from view. For example, in Pittsford, N.Y., a predominantly rural area, a cellular company leased space from a local farmer and placed its tower inside a fake silo.

While residents and companies can make money by leasing land or rooftop space to hungry companies, cities and counties can benefit financially as well. Palm Beach, Fla., will earn $1,800 per month for allowing AT&T to place a stealth antenna on the roof of Town Hall, according to David Jakubiak, assistant to the town manager.

The city has been working with service providers to create ways for them to do their business. In 1997, the city sent surveys to each of the different providers to get information about their service requirements. The city also reviewed all commercial and business properties to determine sites for antennae. Town Hall was a logical place to start, Jakubiak says. (Towers are not permitted in residential areas.)

"We've been pretty successful because we've been able to prevent towers and generate revenue," he says. Since the city started working on cellular planning and permitting, other communities have called Palm Beach for assistance, he adds.

Cellular towers will not be going away anytime soon. In fact, CTIA has estimated that the nation will have 100,000 towers by 2000, up from 58,000 in mid-1998. The TA can help guide locals through planning and approving towers, but ultimately, local zoning ordinances and city officials make the final decisions on permits and location.

"Cities need to plan, plan, plan," Malone says. "They may have to allow companies to put up antennas, but they are not required to let them do it in the cheapest possible way."

By researching cellular service, including tower alternatives, local governments can ensure that they comply with the TA while protecting residents from unsightly installations and potential health risks. Planning also can help preserve property values and, at the same time, create revenue sources.