Alachua County, Fla., officials have been considering the best way to approach regulating the proliferation of cellular phone towers in their county for several years.
During their examination of the issue, staff from various county departments took a field trip to get an idea of what antenna arrays look like and the various combinations of arrays that towers could support.
What they found was a bit of a shock.
"They discovered a number of bootleg arrays that had not been permitted by any agency and were not listed on the property appraiser's records," said Penny Wheat, a member of the county's Board of Commissioners since 1986. "People were quite shocked that there were bootleg antenna arrays that were being constructed without receiving any permission from any local government, much less being listed on the tax rolls."
A "bootlegged" antenna is an apparatus that is unknown to municipal officials. It is a problem that municipalities across the country face.
The Alachua County field trip's payoff?
Wheat said the county, once it became aware of the antenna arrays, was able to add approximately $1 million in tax revenues to its coffers from the carriers who built the arrays.
The Board of Commissioners made a concerted effort over two years to learn the nuances of telecommunications and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, she said, noting that it's important for counties to educate themselves about telecommunications issues.
In Everybody's Back Yard
"Generally speaking, every jurisdiction that I go to, we find bootlegs," said Ted Kreines, the planning consultant hired by Alachua County to help the county develop a master plan for cellular sites and get a handle on the proper manner of assessing them. "I'll drive down the street with a planner, and say, 'Now, take a look at that right there.' And they'll say, 'Hm, I've never seen that before.'"
It's a problem that will only get worse, he said, as the number of cell sites increases at an almost exponential rate as carriers build out their infrastructures to compete against each other.
Though this is clearly a tangible problem, pinpointing who is to blame is a hazy proposition.
"Bootlegging is a widespread problem," Kreines said. "It's done by every one; winked at by everyone; and accepted, more or less, by everyone in a 'don't ask, don't tell' context."
Kreines said many governments are aware of the problem, and carriers know they aren't paying all the property taxes they should be. This doesn't necessarily mean that municipal staff isn't capable or isn't doing their job, he said.
"The biggest problem with bootlegging is that not all of the carriers have come in for the kind of permit that you need to know that they're there," he said. "If I go to rooftops in Sacramento, Calif., especially on state office buildings, my guess is that I'll be looking at a lot of [facilities] that haven't been permitted. [The companies building the facilities] all have different kinds of rationales, 'Well, if I'm on a state office building, the city of Sacramento has no purview, so why even bother.'"
Though that's not true, Kreines said, it doesn't stop the companies from building first and responding to questions later.
Another wrinkle in attempting to determine the extent of cellular facilities located in a county is the relationship, at least in some states, between cities and counties.
Robert McRae, chief assessor of Chester County, Pa., has just begun collecting information on how many cell sites are in his county -- which covers approximately 450,000 acres and has a population of approximately 430,000 -- and has found 321 sites so far.
"We've found ways to identify these sites without relying specifically on the municipalities to tell