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Needy Vermont church, Cellular One strike a lofty deal

(ran PC edition)

If God calls, the members of First Congregational Church will be ready _ especially if the deity uses a cell phone.

High up on the sides of the 144-year-old church's steeple, barely perceptible from the quiet main road of the village, are two white plastic panels.

Behind those panels, invisible to anyone gazing toward the spire of the traditional white New England church, are two antennas installed about a year ago by Cellular One, a wireless phone company serving the area.

The 80-member congregation had fallen on lean times as the new millennium approached. Members were finding it a burden to maintain what the National Register of Historic Places has called "an outstanding example of Greek revival ecclesiastical architecture." A century and a half of Vermont winters had taken their toll. Paint was peeling, and the steeple had been patched numerous times but still was being invaded by pigeons. The bill for fixing the steeple alone was expected to be more than $20,000.

"We're like every other church," said church moderator Bill Ellithorpe. "We have special funds for the carpet, a fund for the stained glass. We had a steeple fund, which didn't have a lot of money in it, compared to what needed to be done."

Meanwhile, Cellular One was looking for locations around a state with a reputation as a tough one for cellular phone companies to do business. Vermont's hilly terrain means that full coverage requires lots of antennas.

A populace proud of the Vermont environment and its historic integrity, and a federal law making it difficult for state and local governments to regulate cell towers, were combining to make for acrimony in many communities where cellular companies were seeking to build.

It was in 1998 that a marriage of needs was proposed. Holly Ernst Groschner, then a Newbury resident, church member and lawyer representing Cellular One, approached church leaders.

Why not put the cellular antenna her client wanted to build in Newbury in the church spire, and have the church collect rent to shore up its steeple and finances?

Ralph Gilson, who ended up being the church's project manager, said he was intrigued by the idea from the start.

"I really couldn't see, if they weren't going to do any damage to the building, why it would be a problem," he said in his thick Yankee accent. "Matter of fact, I thought it was a good idea, especially when they started talking money."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently produced a report on similar installations across the country. Among them:

The Zephyr Cove lookout tower, built in 1932 on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe, where Pacific Bell Wireless has an antenna.

The 1936 art deco Kress department store building in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, where PrimeCo installed antennas.

St. Josephat's Roman Catholic Church in Detroit, where white louvers set into a brick wall hide equipment installed by Nextel Communications.

"In historic areas, a concealed site is almost always preferable to building industrial-style towers in prominent locations, as long as the historic nature of a host building is respected," the National Trust said. "Concealing wireless installations in existing structures can provide an essential service to a community without disrupting its character."

Groschner, who instigated the Newbury project and helped write the National Trust report, called the steeple antennas "a win-win for commerce and communities."

In Vermont alone, Cellular One has 56 antenna sites, and in only five cases has it had to build its own tower. A recent installation was on a dairy farm silo.

In the end, the congregation of First Congregational Church decided that taking the nearly $30,000 for the steeple work and yearly rent of $9,600 from Cellular One would do no harm to the church's spiritual mission.

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