Friday, August 23, 2002

To Tree or Not To Tree

I need you to break a tie.

We're evenly divided in our family. It's not that we have two democrats and two republicans. Or two liberals and two conservatives, two Peter Jennings fans versus two Tom Brokaw fans, or two who like their steak well done and two who like it rare. Actually any of those might be true...I'm not sure if I've ever actually checked. Rather, a mammoth debate rages as we drive down the highway, spot the evidence, and bicker as to whether it makes any sense to cloak a cell tower as a pseudo-tree.

I'm sure you've seen the examples, both pro and con, with your own eyes. After all, it seems everywhere you look there are antennas sprouting up which carry the white rectangular transmitters and receptors for the cell service we all crave. The reason is simple: we have to have it. Hard to believe that practically none of us had mobile phones a mere ten years ago, and now we panic, turn around and go back to get ours should we accidentally leave it at home when we take a 5 minute jaunt to the market.

Unfortunately, though, you can't have blanket coverage without the blanket. And that creates a conundrum. In community after community, residents walk around with phones glued to their ears and bemoan the lack of a perfect signal, while at the same time complaining about the unsightliness of the steel superstructures that bring them the service. Some lucky locales have been able to place them on water towers or on the top of office buildings where they blend in or virtually disappear. Still others have had existing structures for other electronic transmissions that they have been able to add to, so no new intrusions occur. And still others have been able to work out deals to hide them in church steeples or crosses. But many are faced with a variation of the classic NIMBY reasoning: put up enough towers to create a seamless web of service from one end to the other, just don't put it in my backyard... or in any backyard I can see.

Making the process more difficult is that the government has decreed that a community cannot flat out refuse to allow a tower in its midst. If it finds a site objectionable, the most it can do is to propose an acceptable alternate location. And that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, as a sort of reverse version of "Capture the Flag" gets played out around towns. And in this case, nine tenths of the law includes not just possession, but sight lines as well.

But regardless of the community, eventually the music stops and you run out of chairs. Somebody wins and somebody loses. At that point, the cement trucks pour their footings, the steel workers erect their trusses, and the engineers string their cables. And soon thereafter you find that you're able to have a mobile conversation as you drive in your car... hands free, of course... where less than half of the exchange goes as follows: "Can you hear me? Wait... How about now? Hear me now? Wait... it'll get better in a minute. Ah... I'll call you back."

And that's when the cosmetics come in. In an effort to placate those for whom the look of a steel tower sticking up above pristine rolling hills is simply too much to bare, some towers are being constructed to look like trees. On the surface, the idea is laudable. Using the "hide in plain sight" principle, the thinking is to make the technology blend into the surroundings, and thus make it invisible to the casual observer.

Unfortunately, though, the idea of making the towers as one with the local flora and fauna isn't always possible. That's because in order to be effective, they must, by definition, tower above all the local vegetation. And so regardless whether the rolling hills of your town are filled with pines or laurels, with oaks or maples, the designers have borrowed a page from Muir Woods, and created towers that look like ersatz giant sequoia redwoods, soaring to equally impossible heights.

The result is that as you drive down the highway, your can see from miles away a ramrod straight missile aimed at the heavens, lording itself above the surrounding countryside and confusing the hell out of the local squirrels. If anything, it doesn't disappear from your field of vision. Rather, it's very artificialness makes it more pronounced and draws your eye to it. It is as if in order to disguise fire hydrants and make them blend into their surroundings, they cloaked them as mailboxes but painted them chartreuse. Sure, you wouldn't notice any hydrants... but every dog in town would spot them in an instant, and know where to lift their leg.

And so I leave it to you to cast the deciding vote. In either case, you'll get the clear reception you crave. All that is up for debate is whether to disguise the method or to let it stand out for all to see. To tree or not to tree? You make the choice. And hopefully, Kathyrn Harris won't be counting the ballots.
Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders if cell tree towers will lead to more woodpeckers with sore beaks. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.