On Monument Hill, a pair of ponderosa pines towers over the surrounding grove.
In Colorado Springs, a lighthouse keeps watch for ships that will never arrive.
Church bell towers soar higher and higher into the sky.
These subtle changes can easily blur into the landscape. And that's exactly the idea.
The stark industrial scars of past towers -- so essential to enabling clear reception for cellphone users -- has given way to a new generation. These so-called "stealth towers" are camouflaged as pine trees, bell towers, crucifixes, utility light and flag poles, high school stadium lights and even smokestacks.
Over the past 20 years, the use of cellphones has exploded, from around 200,000 subscribers in 1985 to more than 174 million subscribers in 2004. Today, roughly 59 percent of all Americans own a cellphone, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
Booming cellphone use translates into red-hot demand for towers -- which usually need to be placed on ridges or hilltops to maximize coverage.
If you know what you're looking for, stealth towers can be spotted all across America. Think that's a huge saguaro cactus baking in the Arizona sun? Think again. That massive palm tree swaying in the warm Florida breeze? It was actually manufactured by a company in South Carolina.
Camouflaging the towers to blend in with the landscape costs more for phone companies -- in some cases tens of thousands more. In the past, cellphone companies balked at paying extra, but ultimately, most realized that the extra cost is a better deal than trying to duke it out with people who tend to passionately resist eyesores in the middle of their neighborhoods.
"Nobody wants to look at a monopole or a lattice tower," said Patricia Parish, a planner for Colorado Springs city government who tracks the stealth units. "They'd much rather look at a bell tower."
A basic 80-foot tower costs around $20,000 -- and the most expensive standard tower, at 120-feet or higher, costs more than twice that. Camouflaging the towers costs plenty extra -- the simplest form is in the shape of a flagpole at $5,000 to $8,000 more. Faux pine trees set cellphone companies back around $55,000 more and a stealth bell tower typically costs $65,000 extra, according to Charleston, S.C.-based Stealth Concealment Solutions, Inc.
Approximately 20 stealth towers currently stand in Colorado Springs, and seven exist in the outlying county. Hundreds more "semi-stealth" antennae blend into the sides of buildings and water tanks across the region.
The new West
One stealth tower success story is the revived mining headframe at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, just north of the Air Force Academy.
The museum is located just below a ridge, next to the interstate -- a highly coveted spot for cellphone companies. During the 1990s, cellphone company representatives would periodically visit the museum and ask to build a cellphone tower, promising in return revenues from land-leasing fees. But the museum and its neighbors could not see breaking up the "oasis" of scenic land, says Linda LeMieux, the museum's director of 18 years.
In 1997, the museum came up with an idea: They would allow the cellphone company US West access to their land if the company would agree to restore an antique steel head frame first used in 1903 to hoist men and ore out the Elkton gold mine at Cripple Creek. Then, the company could hide its transmitters inside.
The 60-foot tall steel structure had previously been wasting away, lying on its side. The restoration work cost at least $250,000, more than half of the museum's annual operating budget.
"They agreed to do what the museum could not afford to do," LeMieux said. "As far as I know it's the first museum artifact used as a cellphone tower."
Disguised as mining equipment, the stealth cell tower is barely noticeable for the cars whizzing by on Interstate 25. More importantly, the tower's visual effect helps the nonprofit museum educate its visitors about mining in the Old West. "It really did allow us to do something unique," LeMieux said, "and it's kind of cool."
Jack and the beanstalk
El Paso County's first stealth tower was one of the two "trees" looming over the top of Monument Hill. In 1988 and 1991, the nearby neighborhood group Woodmoor Improvement Association, mounted strenuous opposition to requests to plant a 100-foot-plus plain cellphone tower on the scenic wooded ridge.
As a result, the El Paso Board of County Commissioners rejected the first proposal brought before them; the second pitch was withdrawn before it even reached a vote.
In 1994, OneComm, a wireless company that later merged with Nextel, came back with another plan: a shorter 75-foot tower disguised as a jack and the beanstalk-sized ponderosa pine. The neighbors were happy. Commissioners were happy. Everyone was happy.
A second ponderosa cell tower was planted in the same grove in 1997.
Unless you know to look, most motorists now whiz over the top of Monument Hill without noticing the adulterated landscape. But if you look closely, you can understand how stealth towers have been perfected over time.
"Anyone can go up there and see that one of the towers still looks like a tree and another looks like a rusted piece of metal," said Carl Schueler, planning division manager for the county.
Both the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County allow small stealth towers to be approved by administrative decision without public hearing. Larger towers often face the city or county's planning commissions, but if companies opt to pay to camouflage their towers, they face easier confirmation hearings.
"We make it as easy as possible," said Mark Gebhart, principle planner for El Paso County.
ID the stealth cell phone structures, win dinner!
These and the following pages contain photographs of camouflaged cell phone towers that dot the landscape across Colorado Springs and El Paso County.
The names of first 25 people who can successfully identify the specific location of at least five of the stealth towers pictured (not counting the "trees" on top of Monument Hill and the head frame at the Mining Museum) will be entered into a drawing. The winner will receive a $100 gift certificate to a great Colorado Springs restaurant.
E-mail your entries to findthattower @csindy.com or bring them by the Independent office at 235 S. Nevada Ave. during regular business hours. Make sure you include your name and a daytime telephone number.
Note: Sorry, but due to the unfair advantage, city and county planners are not eligible to win.
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