Tower plans signal battle at Harpers Ferry

December 16, 1997

Tower plans signal battle at Harpers Ferry


Staff Writer, Charles Town

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - The ground where Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson once laid seige to Harpers Ferry is once again shaping up as a battleground, this time over a cellular telephone tower that opponents say will mar the community's scenic beauty.

U.S. Cellular plans to build a 260-foot-high tower outside of Bolivar, about 500 feet from the southwest boundary of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Park officials believe that most of the tower will be visible to most of Harpers Ferry.

"It'd be absolutely devastating. It will ruin one of the loveliest places in America. The juxtaposition of an ugly tower over the beauty of the gateway into the Shenandoah Valley will make the tower even uglier," said Dennis Frye, president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites in Hagerstown.


Company officials referred questions to spokeswomen who did not return phone calls Tuesday.

On Dec. 9 the Jefferson County Planning Commission approved placement of the tower.

The Jefferson County Commissioners on Thursday are expected to discuss a moratorium on communication towers until an ordinance governing them is written.

Planning Director Paul Raco said he has until Jan. 13 to come up with a draft ordinance.

Zoning rules in Jefferson County do not cover communication towers, only the fence that surrounds them and the setback requirements for structures, Raco said.

The site plans for the U.S. Cellular tower meet the requirements, he said.

Dave Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conference, said local laws along the entire trail have not kept up with the rise of communication towers.

"A lot of counties and municipalities are not prepared yet to deal with this," Startzell said.

The 1.4-acre site where the tower is planned is in the center of Jackson's position during the siege of Sept. 12-15, 1862. The battle led to the surrender of 12,500 Union soldiers. About 38,000 troops were involved, making it the largest Civil War battle fought in what later became West Virginia.

"This contraption stands even higher than Stonewall Jackson's cannonballs were flying, and it will be so high and so grotesque that its blinking lights will look like new planets in the sky," said Frye, who served as chief historian of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park before leaving in 1995 for his current post.

The tower's site was included in a 1989 boundary summary of resource areas that should be protected, Frye said.

"If Congress had included Jackson's battlefield within the boundary of the park, this would be a non-issue," Frye said.

Scot Faulkner, president of the Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said the fight to stop the tower is not over.

He said a cable television company attempted to build an unsightly tower about 10 years ago on Bolivar Heights.

Federal law prevents communication towers from harming historic or culturally significant sites, he said. Cable officials eventually built a tower lower than originally planned and carefully landscaped to block it from view.

Faulkner said he hopes the federal law will apply in this case.

"You're dealing with a huge intrusion," Faulkner said.

Faulkner and Frye said they plan to be at Thursday's County Commission meeting.

"This abomination may rekindle interest in protecting Jefferson County's heritage. Building that tower doesn't mean this is over," Frye said.

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