AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - Cellular telephones have become as ubiquitous as, say, motor vehicles.
In the 21st century, we can't live without either, or so it seems.
Along with the cell phones, we need cell towers to allow the phones to work. They loom high above the landscape and they, too, seem to be everywhere.
Is it possible for a community, such as Amarillo, to reach a saturation point with the cell towers? According to Randy Schuster, interim building official for the City of Amarillo, we might get there -- eventually. "But we're not there yet," he said, adding he is unable to predict when he'll know when that moment will arrive.
Amarillo's air waves are covered by cell towers, Schuster said. The city has "more than 50 of the towers scattered across the 100-plus square miles of municipal territory. He didn't have an exact figure at hand, but figures it might be "close to 75."
What's not commonly known about cell tower construction and placement, Schuster said, is that the city has placed some reasonable rules and regulations governing that activity.
One rule requires that cell towers be no closer to a building than its height, Schuster said. That means if the tower is 150 tall, it must be at least that far from the nearest structure, he explained. The reason is quite obvious, he said, adding that a tower that falls over must not crash into a building.
That's pretty simple, yes? Well, according to Schuster, the Amarillo Zoning Board of Adjustment has built in some rules that enable variances to apply to the construction and placement of cell towers.
For example, he said, applicants can seek a variance on the city ordinance governing cell tower location if the tower is engineered in such a way that if it falls it collapses straight down, from the top to the ground -- and doesn't fall sideways.
Attaching stricter rules to the placement of cell towers, Schuster said, can be difficult, given the power of the telecommunications lobby in Austin and in Washington, D.C. The lobby persuaded Congress in 1996 to enact the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits the denial of a cell tower permit solely on the basis of radio frequency emissions.
"I'm guessing the wireless communications lobby's intent is to prohibit cities from banning cell towers," said Schuster, who's worked for the city for 21 years.
As interim building official, Schuster succeeded former city building official Scott McDonald, who recently received a promotion and has relocated to a new office in the newly remodeled Jim Simms Municipal Building at Eighth Avenue and Buchanan Street.
Schuster said he unaware of any plans for the city to impose stricter regulations on cell towers beyond existing municipal ordinances.
One of the ways the city seeks to lessen the visual impact of cell towers is to allow them to become "combination units" with other vendors using the structures along with telecommunications companies. Some cities have enacted what Schuster called "stealth tower" rules, which require the structures to look like something else, such as flag poles.
In Amarillo, Schuster said the city does the next best thing, which is to encourage what he called "co-location" of towers with multiple uses.
A particular concern with cell towers, Schuster acknowledged, is the danger posed by fire.
The city's cell phone towers generally do not exceed 160 feet in height, he said. Still, when they do catch fire it can be problematic for firefighting equipment to be able to reach a fire at the top of a cell tower. He said that "to my knowledge, we haven't had a cell tower catch fire."
"They're pretty well spread out around the city," Schuster said of the cell towers.
Schuster said that "It's my understanding that we've never had to relocate a tower."
Still, with telecommunication technology accelerating at an ever-more-rapid pace, there appears -- at this time -- to be no limit on the number of cell towers that could come to Amarillo, Schuster said. "Or, technology might allow us to reduce the number of towers," he added. "We just don't know."
The wireless communication lobby, though, remains a powerful force in the halls of government, he said, which means the city remains unlikely to enact any further restrictions on the towers.
"If we were to do so," he said, "we'd find ourselves in lawsuit after lawsuit."