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Cell Towers of Babel

02/27/02 12:00AM

Sometimes I think the battle over siting cellular telephone towers is a little like the old saying, "everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

I don't know how many Vermonters have cell phones, but judging from the number I see in use, it's a lot.

Yup, we sure love our cell phones. Unless, of course, we live within sight of the tower upon which all of this Babel depends. You see the system works because it is decentralized; relatively small areas are served by each antenna; and as you pass out of the range of one antenna and into the next, your call is transferred without so much as a beep. And since calls are spread across the country, no single antenna has to handle too many. But the downside of this decentralized dream is that you need lots of antennas to make the system work. Lots of antennas means lots of unhappy neighbors because each antenna - or cell tower - is about a hundred feet tall and monumentally ugly.

The telecommunications industry saw this coming back in the early 1990's. As the technology raced ahead, not-in-my-back-yarders used the local zoning and state land-use permit process to hold up tower after tower. If the wireless revolution was to happen, something had to be done. So in 1996, when Congress was considering the Telecommunications Act, the industry tried valiantly to persuade Congress to exempt cell towers from local zoning regulations.

This was a classic Washington battle between an industry with seemingly limitless funds for lobbying and campaign contributions, and local elected officials who traditionally supply grassroots support for the congressman - or his opponent. And on occasion, the local elected official supplies the opponent.

The result of this battle was a compromise that today confronts Vermont communities, neighbors and developers.

To appease neighbors, developers are using every means imaginable to hide their antennas, including hiding them in church steeples. But neighbors aren't the only opponents; environmentalists are concerned about birds striking towers and the health effects of cell phone transmission radiation. And in a long article on their web site, American atheists are objecting to the use of church steeples for antenna camouflage because the cell companies pay handsomely for the space. So much for wanting to go to heaven.

The benefits of the new telecommunications technologies will no doubt exceed our wildest dreams, but the battles over who bears the burden will surely take a toll. Nevertheless, I think Congress was smart to let this one be hashed out locally.

This is Jeff Wennberg in Rutland.

--Jeff Wennberg is a former Mayor of Rutland.

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