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Planned radio tower receives mixed signals

April 05, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY - In the days after an information session on a 190-foot emergency communications tower proposed for Pleasant Valley, Washington County officials say they have received hundreds of e-mails from residents concerned about the tower's impact or upset that they could not ask questions or voice concerns at the meeting.

Opponents agree on the importance of improving radio communications for emergency responders, but question whether the county has sufficiently explored alternatives that would be less likely to affect scenic views, tourism and property values.

"I think there's a lot of concern from the public that this feels like it's being rushed through," said Michelle Miller, a staff member at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, who said the tower will tarnish the view from Weverton Cliffs, one of the trail's most scenic vistas in Maryland.

The county's choice for the tower's site is near the intersection of Sandy Hook and Keep Tryst roads, a spot less than a mile from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Potomac River, the C&O Canal and the Appalachian Trail.

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The tower is one of several the county is building as part of a public safety communications network that will enable all police and fire and rescue agencies in the county to communicate with each other during emergencies. The capital budget lists the cost of the project at $21.8 million.

Written comments only

Peggy Chesnutt, who lives a few hundred yards from the site on Keep Tryst Road, said she was disappointed that the public was not allowed to speak at the March 26 informational meeting.

At that session, residents were told the county would accept only written comments during a 10-day feedback period.

"I felt that they already had made up their mind when we walked into that hearing, and you're made to feel guilty if you are against this," Chesnutt said.

Dennis Frye, a Pleasant Valley native, said he didn't think written feedback was sufficient.

"The citizens of the county own this tower, and the citizens of the county have every right to be heard about this tower," Frye said after that meeting.

Washington County officials argue the decision has been anything but rushed, citing 2 1/2 years of research and discussion at meetings of the Washington County Commissioners.

"There's been ongoing opportunities for public participation," Commissioners President John F. Barr said.

The county began planning the emergency communications upgrade in January 2006, and the height and location of the Pleasant Valley tower were part of an overall plan that already has been set in motion, Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said.

"It's our obligation to provide the public with as much information about a public project as possible, but it's difficult for me to comprehend why we're just now getting hundreds of e-mails in opposition when all of that was part of public record," Aleshire said.

The informational meeting was held primarily to satisfy Federal Communications Commission requirements, Aleshire said.

Pete Loewenheim, Washington County communications maintenance manager, said the county plans to read all submitted feedback and to give each letter equal weight.

Holding another informational meeting or even a public hearing would not be out of the question, Loewenheim said.

"We need to see how everybody feels before we make any decision as to whether we change directions, stay the course, or modify the course," he said.

Alternative sites

Aleshire said he agreed the meeting fell short when it came to presenting alternatives to the tower and the reasons why they wouldn't work.

The Division of Public Works is putting together a chart that will list the locations of alternative sites that were considered and describe the reasons they were eliminated, but first, staff must put the information into a format that isn't so technical that only an engineer could understand it, Loewenheim said.

"The raw data includes coverage maps, path analyses, antenna designs, fade margins and many other factors in various configurations that is used to determine the feasibility of a site," Loewenheim wrote in an e-mail.

The department is working to make the information available as soon as possible, but would not have it ready before the response period has ended Monday, he said.

At the informational meeting, Loewenheim said the county considered six alternative sites for the southernmost tower, but each was deemed insufficient for the county's connectivity goal.

Alternatives to a microwave radio system were ruled out at the beginning of the project, he said.

In the early stages, the county considered using land lines, but ruled them out because they would involve recurring costs, are more easily disrupted, and would require a third-party for maintenance and repair, he said.

Satellite was never considered because of the cost, Loewenheim said. The county doesn't have the advantage that television and Internet providers have of collecting money through advertising, he said.

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