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Votes

Cell Tower Planned for River Falls

140-foot, fake pine tree would hide a tower near the intersection of Stable Lane and MacArthur Boulevard.

A proposed cell tower disguised as a tree has won the approval of homeowners on Stable Lane in River Falls. The tower would house antennae for Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, bringing an end to the cellular deadspot that causes some residents to pace outside their homes at night, searching for a cell phone signal. It would also improve coverage for all cell users along MacArthur Boulevard and at the intersection with Falls Road.

However, it remains to be seen how residents in adjacent neighborhoods will react to the prospect of a 140-foot “pine tree” towering above the wooded area near Old Angler’s Inn and beside Great Falls National Park.

“We have very poor cell coverage in our neighborhood. Our homeowners have been asking for several years to get the cellular service improved so they don’t have to go outside of their houses to make or receive a telephone call,” said Stephen Lehrman, a board member of the River Falls Homeowners Association. The group oversees the newer section of the River Falls neighborhood, which was created in 1994 and is located on Stable Lane and Stable Way. The newer section includes 51 townhouses, 35 single-family homes and 13 moderately-priced dwelling units (MPDUs). The cell tower would be in the backyard of the MPDUs.

“Our homeowners range in ages from probably their late 20s to people in their 70s who’ve been retired for a long time, and everyone has a cell phone,” he added. “All you have to do is walk around the neighborhood at night and you’ll see people standing on their stoops trying to make phone calls.”

The remainder of the River Falls community is not part of the River Falls Homeowners Association, though it is overseen by the Civic Association of River falls. It includes 416 single-family homes. Construction in that section of the neighborhood began in 1968.

INVISIBLE TOWERS, a company based in Oakton, Va., constructs cell towers that are designed to look like trees, house towers, clock towers or even grain elevators. The company first approached the River Falls Homeowners Association three years ago with a proposal to build a “monopine” cell tower near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Stable Lane.

“The reason that we selected Invisible Towers is because they specialize in disguising cell towers,” said Lehrman. “What they’re proposing to construct is a mono-pole tower disguised as a pine tree to blend in with the existing trees. Of course it’s going to be a little bit higher than the tops of the trees in order to get good cellular coverage, which is our primary goal here.”

The homeowners association, which includes residents on Stable Lane and Stable Way but not others in the older portions of the River Falls community, has been negotiating with Invisible Towers for the last three years. The company has presented at the annual meeting and residents were kept abreast of the discussions in regular newsletters. At the annual meeting in August, the association voted overwhelmingly to allow the tower.

Other homeowners in River Falls did not learn of the developments until recently.

“We have recently met with the board of directors of both the Civic Association of River Falls and with Woodrock, which is another neighborhood abutting ours,” said Lehrman. “We’re trying to keep them informed of the progress and status of the project. We’re trying to be good neighbors with them to let them know what’s going on.”

The cell tower company says that their product will not be visible to homes in the older section of River Falls.

“Understand, though, that the tower will have a visual impact to the River Falls community,” wrote Jeff Spigel, president of the Civic Association of River Falls (CARF), in an e-mail to homeowners on Friday. Unlike the River Falls Homeowners Association, which only includes River Falls residents in new homes on Stable Lane and Stable Way, CARF represents all homeowners in the River Falls community.

“While Invisible Towers has represented that they will strive for the tower to have a minimal visual impact by disguising it as a tree, there is no such thing as an ‘invisible tower.’”

In the e-mail to members, Spigel also highlighted the benefits of the proposed tower, such as better cell phone service and the future potential for high-speed wireless broadband service.

CARF will hold a membership meeting in September to discuss the tower and vote on the group’s position.

SAFETY CONCERNS weigh on the minds of some cell tower skeptics.

In spring 2005, the PTSA of Pyle Middle invited a panel of experts to discuss the potential dangers of cell towers after Nextel proposed one at the school. The PTSA members present voted unanimously to reject the tower because of safety issues, long-term health risks, aesthetics and land use issues.

In 2004, Cingular Wireless approached Wootton High with a proposal to place a tower at the school’s stadium. After meeting with the school’s PTSA and booster clubs, Wootton High officials rejected the proposal because of “health and safety concerns” that the tower could pose to students there and at nearby Robert Frost Middle.

The Food and Drug Administration’ website states that ground-level electromagnetic exposure rates from cell towers are typically thousands of times less than the exposure limits adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (www.fda.gov/cellphones/qa.html#7). The FCC’s website assures readers that there is no scientific proof that cell phones cause adverse health effects, but acknowledges that studies on the topic are ongoing (www.fcc.gov/marketsense/cellphone-health.html).

However, a small number of studies point to the possibility of serious health consequences from long-time, heavy cell phone use. In March, a Swedish study found that the extended use of cell phones can increase the risk of brain tumors (http://news.zdnet.com/2100-1040_22-6056325.html). The World Health Organization has created an ongoing program to monitor research in this area and make recommendations related to the safety of mobile phones. It has reached no definitive conclusions on the risks of cell phones thus far because of the paucity of long-term studies in this area (www.who.int/peh-emf/en/).

Tas Robin, a homeowner in Woodrock, is not convinced that cell towers are safe, and she opposes the construction of one in River Falls.

“I was shocked to find out about it,” said Robin. “When I talked to people in Woodrock, they didn’t know anything about it. Are they keeping it secret until nothing can be done about it by the public?

“There are a lot of children in the neighborhood, and some actually go to the schools that turned the towers down,” she added, “so there’s a great deal of concern among residents here.”

Lehrman believes that cell towers do not pose a serious threat, and he encourages homeowners to research the data online.

“The Federal Communications Commission, the FDA and the World Health Organization all have websites that discuss cellular towers,” he said. “All of the scientific information to date as reported by those organizations shows absolutely no adverse health effects from cellular towers.”

A FORMAL APPLICATION for the tower has not yet been filed with Montgomery County Park & Planning, but the board of directors for the River Falls Homeowners Association did send a letter on March 31 asking for the chairman’s support of the tower.

“Our community, and its surrounding neighborhood… currently has very poor cellular coverage,” wrote T. Ann Fink, a representative for the board. “According to the Federal Communications Commission, at least thirty percent of emergency calls originate from wireless phones. Families, especially those with teenagers, find wireless service essential in keeping family members in touch with one another and safe.”

A 34-page attachment containing about 30 letters of support was sent with the correspondence.

“The homeowner’s association is asking for the installation [of the cell tower] on their property, which is pretty unusual,” said Callum Murray, team leader for the Potomac Master Plan. “There’s a letter indicating community support and a lot of people have counter-signed it. Usually citizens fight [cell towers] tooth and nail.”

Invisible Towers solicited expressions of support on their website, at www.invisibletowers.com/projects.asp.

“More than a third of our homeowners took time to send in letters of support to the county,” said Lehrman. “That’s better than you get in most elections. I think that speaks to the support that our homeowners have for this project.

“Once Invisible Towers has their informational meetings, that support will grow,” he added. “There’s always going to be some people against it and we understand that.”

The River Falls Homeowners Association must apply to the Montgomery County Board of Appeals. The application will then be viewed by the county's tower committee, which will make a recommendation on the issue for the planning board.