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Washington County residents to have chance to comment on Pleasant Valley tower

April 16, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Responding to complaints that the public has not had a say in the plan to build an emergency communications tower in southern Washington County, the county commissioners on Tuesday agreed to hold a public hearing on the matter in which people will be able to ask questions and voice their concerns to county officials.

In addition, the county will post on its Web site analyses of alternative tower sites and the minutes of meetings between a public safety committee and the National Park Service, which is one of the groups opposed to the tower proposed near the intersection of Keep Tryst and Sandy Hook roads.

The county commissioners reached a consensus to approve the public hearing Tuesday during a discussion with Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III and Communications Maintenance Manager Pete Loewenheim.

The tower is one of 10 proposed as part of a $21.8 million plan to upgrade the county's emergency communications network, which will allow all county police and fire and rescue agencies to communicate with each other during emergencies.

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The south county tower site has received opposition from some residents and groups such as the National Park Service, which says the 190-foot tower will obstruct views in the area.

The site is less than a mile from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Potomac River, the C&O Canal and the Appalachian Trail.

Several alternative sites have been proposed, but county officials say most of them will not provide adequate coverage for the radio system.

The county held a public informational meeting about the south county site last month that was heavily criticized because residents only were allowed to submit questions and comments in writing.

At the end of Tuesday's discussion, Commissioner Terry L. Baker suggested that future public informational meetings should include time for citizen comments.

"Actually, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't have a public hearing on this," Commissioner William J. Wivell said.

The commissioners reached a consensus to approve a public hearing, though a date has not been set.

In the meantime, Kroboth said the committee is reviewing the written comments received during the public information meeting.

"I assure you we are reading every one of them and considering the concerns they raise," Kroboth said.

In addition, he said county officials are reviewing some alternative site proposals, including one from a local resident who has offered his land for the project.

Kroboth also said the county is working to schedule a meeting with the park service's technical analysts to discuss the alternative sites and coverage data created by Motorola, which is developing the communications system.

But before that meeting can occur, the technical analysts must sign nondisclosure agreements because they will be viewing Motorola trade secrets and other proprietary technological information, Kroboth said.

During the discussion with the county commissioners, Kroboth talked about the issues that have risen out of the south county tower proposal.

He said the 10 tower sites were made public two years ago and that the county knew at that point that the south county tower might obstruct the viewshed of some historic sites in the area.

Kroboth said he and other county officials first met with park service officials in October 2006 to talk about the site. He said that group proposed several alternate sites when they met again in August 2007.

None of the alternate sites measured up to the county's "95/95" connectivity goals, Loewenheim said, which would give emergency responders radio coverage outside of their vehicles in 95 percent of the county 95 percent of the time.

The park service agreed that none of the alternative sites worked, but said the height of the tower on the proposed site would be a problem, Kroboth said.

But a smaller tower is not practical because several antennas must be vertically stacked on the tower at 10-foot intervals, Kroboth said.

A suggestion to build two 90-foot towers also is impractical for two reasons, Kroboth said.

The site is not large enough for two towers, and building two towers close to each other would create interference, which actually would make coverage worse, Kroboth said.

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