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Cell phone tower disguised as tree

By Ed Brock

Its trunk is brown metal and its limbs are unnaturally straight and clustered near the top, but as far as Joyce Pope was concerned it was just a tree.

"I never noticed that," said Pope. "They have it camouflaged really well."

Pope stood in the parking lot of Southlake Soft Cloth Car Wash on Jonesboro Road in Morrow, surprised to learn for the first time that the gigantic "tree" behind the car wash is in fact a Nextel cell phone tower.

"In the business we call them ?stealth towers,'" said Nextel spokeswoman Norma Tharp.

About two years ago Nextel approached the city with a proposal to build a tower on the site directly behind the car wash and just south of Reynolds Road where the company said they had a slight gap in their service, Morrow City Manager John Lampl said.

"They were trying to cover the spectrum of service that they needed," Lampl said. "We decided that if it had to be in that area it had to be something that was appealing to all parties."

So Lampl and the city council went on the Internet and searched for ideas on how to make the tower, well, blend. They decided the tree version was what was called for.

"Most people don't pay attention to it because it visually blends in," Lampl said.

The property behind the tower is thickly wooded, but the tower stands taller than the other trees. The truth is more obvious as the observer gets closer to the tree, and a brick wall at the base hides the other mechanical workings of the tower.

Pope may not be the only customer at the Southlake car wash who took the tree at face value.

"They say that's a strange looking tree out there," General Manager Brad Johnston said. "The birds nest in it. We have a hawk that nests up in there."

Mike Gullatt, owner of the car wash, said he is incorporating a picture of the tree tower on coupons for the business.

Morrow Elementary School worker Nadine Peek and her fellow employees watched the tower go up two years ago.

"We really didn't know what it was for a while," Peek said. "We knew it wasn't a tree."

Peek's 9-year-old daughter noticed the tower, too.

"She said, mama, what that tree, it's way up there," Peek said.

Peek and the others who have learned the tree's secret all said it's better than a regular tower.

"It seems like trees are always a welcome addition," Tharp said.

Along with the tree towers, Nextel has hidden its equipment in church bell towers, flag poles and in a candelabra in a stadium. But the stealth towers don't come cheap. A stealth tower costs about 75 percent more than a regular tower, Tharp said, and they are usually installed to fit the zoning requirements of the target area.

"It's very unusual for us to put up a stealth tower," Tharp said. "Maybe two percent of the towers we put up are stealth towers."