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Plans to Build Cellular Towers Irk Some, Make Others Rich

Cellular-phone firms now willing to camouflage ugly towers or pay large fees

No one in Abington Township, an upscale suburb of Philadelphia, had anything against mobile phones. No one, that is, until a cellular company asked to put up a 10-story steel cellular transmission tower on a rolling green campus near the town center.

"It's a disgrace," says Dorris Lee Offen, whose property abuts the private Meadowbrook School. "We don't want it in a residential area. Keep it in highways, in cemeteries, perfect. Not in a school."

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In Abington, and in communities across the country, residents like Mrs. Offen worry the towers will deface their skylines, depress property values, and possibly even pose a health risk.

But cellular-phone firms, hustling to keep up with growing demand, insist the towers must go in. More and more, however, they're willing to offer compromises - from paying big lease fees to camouflaging their towers. One company even hid its tower in a church steeple.

Nextel, the cellular company in Abington, "is very sensitive to the concern of the neighbors," said its attorney, Edward Wild, at a recent town meeting. "However, they are building a cellular ... network and ... Abington township is going to bear some fair share."

Some Abington residents hired an attorney to urge the local zoning board to deny tower applications from firms like Nextel. The town even nixed a plan that would have charged $24,000 per year per tower for 30 towers placed in parks, schools, and a cemetery. It would have put $1 million a year in the wealthy town's coffers.

But many municipalities and private groups want the lease fees companies are paying for the towers.

After being rejected by the township, Nextel offered the Meadowbrook School an undisclosed monthly fee. Last week, the Abington zoning board denied Nextel's application. But the company plans to appeal.

Although Abington residents haven't fought towers on health grounds, residents elsewhere have health concerns.

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Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently released a letter saying the new Sprint PCS digital mobile-phone network may pose a risk from concentrated microwave radiation.

Cellular firms deny there's a risk, and the Federal Communications Commission does not recognize health risks from the towers. So far, the most successful method of rejecting the towers has been arguing that land isn't zoned for industrial or commercial purposes.

But while some towns like Abington have fought the towers through legal means, other towns and cities have been able to find a compromise.

For instance, Philadelphia-based Comcast Mobile Communications clinched a deal with the city of Philadelphia to erect two steel towers in the city's historic Fairmount Park by offering to pay $500,000, as well as repave a parking lot, replace an aging building, and even prune the park's trees.

"We respect the park. We live here too," says Comcast spokeswoman Melissa Nichols. The total amount her company is paying is estimated at more than $650,000. "This is a somewhat unconventional lease agreement," she says. But "we recognize we are dealing with a tremendous natural resource that required a different approach."

Elsewhere, cellular-phone firms have invented disguises for towers that help incorporate them into the existing community - and reduce neighbors' anxiety. So-called suburban camouflage has resulted in GTE Mobilnet hiding its 90-foot tower in Alamo, Texas, inside a fake tree, replete with bark, branches, and leaves. And in DeKalb County, Ga., AirTouch Cellular hid its transmission tower inside a street lamp.


* Nearly 50 million Americans - and 130 million worldwide - use wireless phones.

* Mobile phone users average 90 to 100 minutes per month.

* The average cellular-phone call lasts 2.15 minutes.

* The average monthly bill is about $50.

* Depending on the rate plan and roaming charges, one minute can cost between 56 cents and $1.43.

Source: Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association

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