The Prince William Board of County Supervisors will have to decide between aesthetics and clear cell phone reception when it considers a proposal to build a 120-foot cellular phone tower disguised as a tree in a residential neighborhood, county officials said last week.
The planning commission already rejected the proposal in a 7-1 vote last month. The county Planning Office recommends that the supervisors approve the tower, but only at a height of 95 feet.
"We have to take a look at finding a balance," said board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R). "We've got to make sure these towers are in the right place. We'll hear what people have to say."
The board will hold a public hearing on two items related to the same proposal at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the McCoart Administration Building. One would rezone the property to allow a cellular tower; the other would allow the tower to be built.
So far, the planning commission has sided with residents who live near the proposed location at Purcell and Kahns roads and are opposed to the tower, which would be made to look like a pine tree. "Cell towers don't belong in neighborhoods," Commissioner Kim Hosen said.
Hosen said the location is not supported by the county's Comprehensive Plan, the blueprint for zoning and development. The plan says that visibility of a tower in residential areas is a "primary determinant" for location. Sprint's giant fake pine tree would blend in with foliage for six months of the year, but would be visible during the other half of the year when surrounding trees lose leaves, according to a county analysis of the proposal.
Rene M. Fry, the only commissioner to favor the tower, said his peers are not looking at the greater service to the county's residents. "Cell phones have become a necessity. It's a utility," he said.
He also said a rejection of the tower infringes on property rights. "What the planning commission needs to look at is the rights of the property owner and the impact on the community," Fry said.
Linda Blevins, the property owner, said she welcomed Sprint to put the huge fake tree in her yard after they approached her about four years ago. "The money sounded good. If they want that thing in my yard, I'll plant some flowers around that sucker," she said, declining to disclose the price Sprint offered.
She said her immediate neighbors had no objections. But she remembers a resident who lived down the road approaching her. "She told me she had to drive past it," Blevins said. "They have to drive past light poles, telephone poles. I don't understand it." Blevins said that because the tower would be disguised as a tree, it would be more aesthetically pleasing than utility poles and traditional cell phone towers.
Hosen said that she also did not recall opposition from immediate neighbors, but, she said, "Really, the people in the vicinity are all equal partners in that, I think." The proposed location is in a community of subdivisions bounded by the Prince William Parkway and Dumfries and Hoadly roads.
Sprint was sensitive to aesthetics, said James R. Michal, the attorney representing Sprint. "To Sprint's credit, they went with a stealth design," he said.
Cellular towers disguised as other things continue to pop up all over the country, as cell phones become a way of life. Cellular One built a faux tree at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate. In Prince William, there is already at least one other tower disguised as a tree located on the Prince William Parkway, said John White, a county planner.
Michal said Sprint also did not choose a location randomly. Much study went into picking the best location, which included factors such as proximity to other antenna sites and interference by trees, which can block signals, Michal said.
"It's all common sense. It's all engineering," Michal said. "People today want their phones to work."