Hiding in plain sight

There's really no way to miss the cell phone tower looming at one end of Braddock Avenue, near the corner of Curry Ford Road and Crystal Lake Drive. It's the tallest thing around, and it's an old one: a stout metal trunk blasting more than 100 feet into the sky, spiky antennas jabbing out from the upper levels.

When Robert Hernandez moved onto Braddock Avenue six years ago, he wasn't sure what the big thing sticking up behind the adjacent strip mall was. It was an odd sight, but not really offensive, he says. And initially, it did have its charms. The top was covered by a large bird's nest — ospreys, Hernandez says — and he enjoyed watching the birds from his house just two doors down.

"So I kind of liked it."

But the nest blew off in a hurricane's residual winds, so now, once the tower's presence has registered, there's no real reason even to look up at it, Hernandez says. "It's not something that you really pay too much attention to."

For Barry Pickering, who lives three doors down Braddock, the tower's not too anomalous in a heavily built-up area — so long as it assures him good cell phone reception.

"It doesn't bother me. I haven't noticed any adverse effects or anything," Pickering says, jerking his head and twitching. He's just kidding about that, though, referring to the oft-studied but unproven rumors of health hazards from cell phone emissions. "If I was out in the middle of the country and it was ruining the visual effect, that would be one thing," Pickering says.

The tower was already there when he arrived 10 years ago, and like Hernandez, Pickering enjoyed watching the birds that used to live atop it. But now the birds are gone, and cell phone tower companies can't really count on such natural camouflage developing, or remaining. What they can do, however, is disguise towers from the start, to avoid perturbing neighbors less accepting than Hernandez and Pickering.

That issue does arise, says Orlando city planner Leo Cruz. Some city dwellers don't mind new cell phone towers in their neighborhood, but some do see them as big and intrusive.

Some requests for new towers have been denied due to public opposition. Tower companies are well aware that they're not always welcomed, Cruz says, so usually those proposing new towers talk with planning staff first and try to feel out what designs would be likeliest to win support. The city gets some complaints about ugly towers, such as one that dates back to World War II; the skeletal tower at 10301 Narcoossee Road started its working life as a U.S. Navy radio mast, Cruz says. Now it's been converted into a cell phone tower, but federal regulations require it to be grandfathered in to current rules. Unless the owner decides to demolish the tower or it falls in a storm, residents are stuck looking at it.

As technology has advanced and towers have increased in number, however, the builders of newer structures have been under regulatory and public pressure to provide cell phone service without disrupting the view. How to solve this problem? Evolve camouflage.

As technology has advanced and towers have increased in number, however, the builders of newer structures have been under regulatory and public pressure to provide cell phone service without disrupting the view. How to solve this problem? Evolve camouflage.

As technology has advanced and towers have increased in number, however, the builders of newer structures have been under regulatory and public pressure to provide cell phone service without disrupting the view. How to solve this problem? Evolve camouflage.

Imagine cell phone towers as a new exotic species, moving in to colonize new territory. That's a scenario familiar enough in Florida. The towers have to find their environmental niche, providing the fittest service while avoiding predators such as sharp-eyed local regulators and rapacious homeowners associations. To do this, they've developed a variety of modifications for varying environments, separating into species of tree, flagpole, cross or bell tower.

Examples of all of those can be seen by Orlando-area tower hunters.

Gail Tyree, development coordinator for Orange County's zoning division, says the first camouflaged tower she recalls went up in 1995. The tower on Lake Margaret Drive was disguised as a large cross, appropriate for its site on church property, but a novel idea at the time. "The church came in and suggested this on its own," Tyree says.

A "monopine" — a tower disguised unconvincingly as a tree, with its bushy antenna array painted green — stands at the corner of Lee Road and Bennett Avenue in Winter Park, says George Wiggins, director of that city's building and code enforcement department. When it went up it was in the county, and hence under the county's zoning rules, but has since been annexed.

The light poles at Showalter Football and Track Stadium, owned by the city of Winter Park itself, do double duty as stealthy cell phone towers, Wiggins says.

A bell tower/cell tower can be seen at Brush Arbor Baptist Church on Goldenrod Road. But what works best, and thus is most common, is a flagpole.

"There are probably more than a dozen flagpoles," Tyree says.

The latest in tower camouflage isn't really camouflage at all; it's just a simple, unobtrusive pole, without projecting antennas. These "unipoles" can also be used as the base for a billboard or something similar, but often they're left as is. The most recent county approval of a cell phone tower was for a unipole at Vista Community Church on South Chickasaw Trail, Tyree says. That went through revisions that recapitulate the stages of tower camouflage: Proposed as a flagpole, it was changed to a cross, but neighbors and builders finally settled on an unadorned unipole, she says.

When a new tower is proposed, neighbors first get to state their preferences for its appearance at a community meeting, and then again at the public hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Tyree says. That board's decision is often partially based on neighbors' input.

The push for camouflage is driven by two complementary factors: the swift spread of towers and the public/governmental reaction.

According to CTIA — the Wireless Association, a major lobbying group for the cell phone industry, tower sites nationwide have grown from a measly 346 in January 1985 to 245,912 in mid-2009. Their numbers have really exploded in the last decade as cell phone customers grew to nearly 277 million — basically, almost all the adult population of the United States.

But the territory is getting crowded and cell phone towers must resort to ever more devious methods to keep increasing without wearing out their welcome.

According to the FCC, there are at least a couple hundred towers in the Orlando area, owned by about 50 companies. Not all of those are phone service providers, of course, though all the major companies are represented. The biggest local contingent is owned by AT&T. That accounts for 39 towers, followed by T-Mobile with 15. But most of the competitors are small firms that just own one or two towers, on which service providers lease space for their equipment. Modern towers can take upward of a half-dozen providers' equipment.

This burgeoning forest of towers is governed mostly by local rules. The FCC defers to state and local governments on tower aesthetics. The Florida Public Service Commission doesn't have jurisdiction over such matters. About the only other standards that apply are those set by the FAA, but those mostly have to do with limiting tower height near airports and setting warning lights on taller ones.

Orange County's zoning division regulates cell phone towers in unincorporated areas, but individual cities have their own zoning boards and thus their own policies; they're broadly similar, seeking to minimize the prominence of towers.

Orlando's ordinance governing cell phone towers was drafted in 1991. It even requires the bases of towers to be camouflaged, specifying acceptable types of trees. Rules get less detailed as the proposed towers get less noticeable, slacking off for those unobtrusively attached to buildings and giving a fairly easy pass to those made to look like something else.

"Our code is set up to enhance camouflage," Cruz says.

Some kinds of disguise have now become common enough to approach overuse. Orlando is now discouraging flagpole towers, unless they're next to public buildings where you'd expect to see a flagpole anyway, Cruz says. "We have been encouraging the monopoles or ‘stealth poles,'" he says.

Orange County's code was developed in 1995 by a joint committee of industry representatives, the Orange County Homeowners Association Alliance and planning staff, including Tyree herself. The results garnered a 1996 award from the National Association of Counties.

The rules were tightened further in 1997, but along the way the cell phone industry unsuccessfully challenged them as too strict. Companies argued that the rules violated the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which sought to remove barriers to new communication networks.

"Our tower code stood," Tyree says.

She points to the tower next to Braddock Avenue as an example of the old-fashioned kind that's now discouraged in residential areas. Orange County now has 53 pages of regulations governing new towers of that type, limiting their size and where they can be built.

For towers disguised as something else, however, the rules are only a half-page long. Hide cell phone equipment inside a flagpole, and it's much easier to get it approved. The rules' stated purpose is to meet the need for more electronic communication, but minimize the visual impact of cell phone equipment.

The largest local owner of cell phone towers uses camouflage that runs the gamut from fake "monopine" trees to bell towers and flagpoles, says Gretchen Schultz, AT&T media contact for central and north Florida. The ability to disguise towers has grown as technology has advanced, but that won't work everywhere, because those disguises do tend to limit range, says Schultz. Shorter range means more towers in an area, so it's a bit of a trade-off.

"When evaluating new coverage areas, we assess what type of tower will best provide service to an area — a typical cell tower (if you will) provides the most coverage and capacity needs for an area," Schultz writes via e-mail. "However, there are times when working with zoning boards, city councils, homeowners associations or others in a more populated area, that a camouflaged tower is the best option to preserve the aesthetics of the community and comply with zoning regulations."

Cell phone tower builders and local landowners have a symbiotic relationship: The towers have to sit someplace, so builders lease a spot on somebody's property. The landowner gets a monthly payment for the inconvenience, but if the tower is disguised, they may get an added bonus. Consider a church approached by a builder. If the cell phone equipment is hidden inside a large cross, not only is it effectively disguised, but the church gets free advertising.

That's exactly what happened at East Orlando Baptist Church five or six years ago, says church secretary Beth Baggs.

Baggs wasn't involved in the discussions — there's been enough turnover in the church that it's tough to find someone who was, she says — but apparently SBA Properties, the tower owner, approached the church asking to site a cell phone tower on the church's land on Curry Ford Road and proposing from the start several ways to camouflage it.

"The cross was just what the church settled on from the available designs," she says. The company leased the land for about $1,200 per month.

About a year and a half ago, however, SBA asked to buy permanent rights to the site instead of leasing it — not the land itself, but the right to keep a tower there as long as they wanted — for about $155,000, Baggs says.

At the time, church donations were down, in part due to the early stages of recession, and they'd been without a pastor for some time. With the lump sum, church members replaced their air conditioning system, bought some new equipment and got a leg up on attracting a new pastor.

"It was a huge help to the church," she says. "We were able to say, ‘Hey, we can pay your salary for a while if you want to come try us out.'"

The company does all necessary maintenance, and the big cross has been a boon rather than an eyesore, she says. "I think it's been a really good partnership. Mostly people say, ‘Oh, you're that church with the big cross,' not ‘You're that church with the big cell phone tower.'"

Now the moneymaking tower, in its disguised form, is on the church's new logo. "It actually played a role in the renaming of our church, because we're now ‘GracePoint @ the Cross,'" Baggs said.

Though a few cellular dinosaurs still stalk the surface, and many more have hunkered down in disguise as patriotic or religious symbols, the next generation of cell phone equipment is burrowing into near-invisibility.

In areas with enough large buildings, AT&T looks to place cell phone antennas atop those, not requiring an actual tower at all. That fits well with local ordinances. That kind of concealment is what Orange County wants to encourage, Tyree says.

A building has to be at least three stories tall to house cell phone equipment; that's one of the many standards negotiated between industry officials and county government, based on need for height versus the typical size of local buildings.

"It's all about aesthetics," Tyree says.

If cell phone equipment is actually built into a building itself, such as a church steeple, then technically it's not a tower, so none of the zoning regulations apply. Cruz says a couple of companies have asked about Orlando's attitude toward "microtowers," which pack the necessary equipment into something the size of an old phone booth. None of those have been formally proposed yet, but they look like something the city will probably encourage as even less noticeable.

Winter Park ordinances have a long list of requirements for big new towers, including serious attempts at camouflaging the bases with landscaping and matching their surroundings as closely as possible. But it's easy to get approval for small antennas on an existing building. Wiggins says several buildings in downtown Winter Park have cell phone equipment on their roofs, such as Winter Park Towers on South Lakemont Avenue.

There, the visible parts are limited to a few aerials atop the eight-story building, and internally, some banks of equipment in closets, says Ivan Sanchez, director of plant operations at the Presbyterian Retirement Communities—owned building. The two companies that have cell phone equipment on top of the building don't interfere with regular activities, even in the recently renovated penthouse. Some residents don't even know that the equipment is up there, according to Sanchez. Those who do notice workers occasionally coming in have asked him what they're doing, and most have no objection. For the few who do, he's got a ready answer.

"Some residents say to me, ‘Why do we have to have this equipment in our building?' I say to them, ‘If you were a neighbor of this community, which would you rather see next door: a big old nasty tower, or something like this that's hardly even visible?'"

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