Citizens battle W.Va. cell phone tower

December 18, 1997


Staff Writer, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Jefferson County residents turned out for a County Commissioners meeting Thursday to voice opposition to a plan to erect a 260-foot-high cellular telephone tower near Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

The commissioners voted 4-1 to recommend that the Jefferson County Planning Commission start the process of putting a moratorium on any other tower permits until a proposed ordinance to govern them has been approved.

County Commissioner Greg Lance likened the residents' action to that of soldiers rushing to defend a barricade.

"We need to defend the summit," Lance said.

Jefferson County Commissioner Dean Hockensmith, who represents the Harpers Ferry District, voted against the moratorium.

"I'm strictly against the moratorium. I believe in free enterprise. We've already got rules and regulations in place in this county," said Hockensmith.


Some commissioners told Hockensmith they generally agreed with him about government intervention, but said this case was an exception.

Hockensmith said he did not think a new ordinance is needed to govern cellular towers.

"I really think we're over-regulated now in this county," Hockensmith said.

County Commissioner James Ruland said there are times when the government has to look after the rights of all the people.

"Nobody wants to see the county bristling ... like a pincushion," Ruland said.

County Attorney J. Michael Cassell told the commissioners they could not block the construction permit that the Jefferson County Planning Commission issued on Dec. 9.

More than 60 people attended Thursday's meeting and nearly half spoke out against the proposed location of the tower, about 500 feet from the southwest border of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. No one spoke in favor of the tower.

An attorney representing U.S. Cellular took notes, but did not speak publicly.

Harpers Ferry Mayor Kip Stowell told the commissioners that the tower would be visible from most of Harpers Ferry and would be the first thing visitors coming in on U.S. 340 would see.

Tourism plays an important role in the economy of both Jefferson County and West Virginia, and a tower that mars the landscape would hurt tourism, Stowell said.

Bill Gavin, owner of the Cliffside Inn next to the planned tower site, said a 260-foot-tower would hurt tourism and his business, because guests would not want to look out their windows and see a strobe light instead of mountains.

Dennis Frye, president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, with headquarters in Hagerstown, said the tower's planned location is in the center of where Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson seized the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry in 1862.

Frye said the site, just outside the park's boundary, is the most important Civil War site in West Virginia, particularly since Jackson was a native of what became West Virginia.

Scot Faulkner, president of the Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said his group is willing to work with U.S. Cellular to find an alternative site that would be less intrusive but would still provide coverage for cell phone users.

Faulkner said it would be better for the people in Jefferson County and for U.S. Cellular to reach a compromise that would avoid lengthy and expensive court litigation and hearings before state and federal agencies.

Markham L. Gartley, project manager for U.S. Cellular, said in an interview after Thursday's meeting that he is willing to meet with interested groups about possible compromises, although he could not offer any guarantees.

Gartley said the company has a building permit for the site, which he said was not the best location possible.

"We have an obligation to provide a service to the people in the area. We take the obligation seriously and we want to provide the best service we can," Gartley said.

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