by Jesse Drake, Bisbee, Arizona
For almost two decades, companies have developed clever ways to camouflage telecommunications towers. For planners, requiring stealth wireless facilities to be inconspicuous can still present several challenges.
The entire conundrum of wireless communications technology comes down to this: “I want my electronics to work seamlessly with lots of capacity for data downloads, but I don’t want to look at ugly towers.”
Planners want to assist both the community and the wireless industry and come to an aesthetic solution that works for everyone. So how can communities develop a regulatory mechanism that encourages site acquisition folks from the wireless industry to conform to a subjective opinion about aesthetics for the community?
An Arizona example
In the rural part of southeastern Arizona where I work, an applicant shows up at the counter or calls on the phone wanting to put up a new wireless communication tower. We quickly go through the who, what, why, and where before we get to the troublesome ‘how.’
In some locations siting may not be an issue. For example, along the international boundary where we have Homeland Security towers jauntily following the contours of the landscape along the border, a new tower built of metal lattice or a ten-inch diameter pole will blend into the existing visual clutter and is not a problem. But requests for those locations are few.
Most service providers want installations in heavily populated areas, where there is a larger customer base. In those instances, when the application is for a lattice tower or metal pole, the request often creates visual incongruity with the surrounding landscape. That’s when I ask an applicant to submit a stealth application, and more often than not I get a drawing of a pine tree.
“How tall is this tree?” I ask. “85 feet,” they answer. And I’m left explaining that an 85’ foot tall, 20’ wide Ponderosa pine plunked in the high desert chaparral is not what we would consider stealth.
What is stealth?
So what exactly is stealth? The dictionary defines the word stealth as “unobtrusive, inconspicuous, and intended to not attract attention.” Stealth wireless communication facilities should actually try to achieve being unobtrusive and inconspicuous. Most governmental agencies have a purpose statement in their zoning ordinance stating some version of this idea. The goals of this ordinance are:
- Minimize the total number of towers in a community
- Protect residential areas from potential adverse impacts of wireless communications facilities. Strongly encourage the joint use of tower sites rather than construction of additional single-use towers
- Encourage wireless communication towers and antennas to be placed in a way that minimizes the adverse visual impact of the facility through appropriate design, siting, landscape screening, and camouflaging techniques
Making a communications tower compatible with the surrounding environment often can, and should, require a stealth facility. That 85’ pine, a dense cylinder, would be difficult to describe as inconspicuous in our sparse and shrubby countryside. Worse yet, as the ‘tree’ ages, it can become a straggly, bare-branched eyesore as the plastic pine needles fall away due to its exposure to sun, dust, snow and wind.
How to overcome resistance?
One way to overcome the resistance from the wireless provider to the installation of a stealth tree is to require regular maintenance as a condition of approval.
Here are some examples of prickly questions that may need to be answered.
- Be cautious about who is required to fulfill the maintenance stipulation. Is it the ‘tree’ builder, the service provider? Is it the landowner, who usually is just leasing the land to the tower builder, or the tower contractor who may be representing another company?
- What if more antennas are added to the tree? Does the new service provider participate in the maintenance costs? If so how?
- What happens if the company responsible for maintenance is sold or goes out of business?
- How often is maintenance provided, and who makes the determination if maintenance is needed? If there is a maintenance contract in place, does it cover the entire life of the facility?
Are there other stealth options?
In the desert southwest, stealth saguaros have been successfully used. When the stealth cactus is appropriately sited where this species naturally grows, and when the stealth ‘cactus’ diameter is within a reasonable range of a natural saguaro, the wireless facility blends in invisibly.
Towers disguised as grain silos, vintage or modern water towers, sculpture, bell towers, clock towers, chimneys and other architectural features are all currently in use. You don’t notice them because they actually do blend into their surroundings.
Each application must be carefully designed to be site specific, be proportional to its surroundings, and must fit into the adjacent contextual fabric. These types of facilities require less maintenance.
Wireless communications facilities designed as architectural structures with radio-frequency friendly antenna shielding material are not used more frequently due to their higher construction cost in relationship to that stealth pine tree, so there is resistance to governmental requests for these optional screening methods.
So what to do?
Incentivize the better choice. Encourage new commercial builders to include a tall element into the original design of their building and leave a dedicated space for ground equipment to be located on the interior of the building. The continuity of the visual aesthetic of a building designed and planned to accommodate future wireless service in nearly every instance is more appropriate than trying to retrofit an existing structure.
Future lease income from the site helps offset the area set-aside and additional initial construction costs. Site acquisition firms prefer using existing verticality to having the additional time and expense of new construction and governmental agencies do not have to deal with a long and complicated process if appropriate structures are already built and ready to use. Everyone wins.
If an existing structure is not available or no architectural element currently exists, incentivize the use of community public spaces that would benefit from an artistic element. Allow appropriate site-specific architectural stealth designs to override fall zone requirements because the new stealth structure would be required to conform to the community’s approved building standards in the same manner as any other building and therefore should not require greater setbacks.
In commercial settings allow signs such as those for commercial shopping centers to be erected over the height limit if the additional height is a concealment site for a stealth sign containing internal antennas. Or consider the addition of over-height rooftop cupolas and parapet walls as an incentive for concealed wireless sites.
Often the best solution
Government agencies should codify these stealth requirements, educate their policy makers, and not be afraid to ask for the right, site-specific stealth facility for their community. Stealth is often the best possible solution for the conundrum of providing adequate telecommunications service while at the same time eliminating visual discontinuity for your community.
Jesse Drake is the Planning Manager for Cochise County, Arizona. She has experience on both the public and private side of planning having taught for over a decade at Arizona State University, and in her prior work as a private planning consultant doing site design, research, reports and presentations for such diverse clients as developers, attorneys, private industry and governmental agencies. She gained experience in the telecommunications industry as a site acquisitions manager for one of the largest wireless providers.
Published in the April/May 2016 Issue of The Western Planner