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Our views on tower, dam, welcome center

May 17, 2010

We've all taken a photograph of a beautiful vista only to observe, later, that an unnoticed telephone pole has materialized in the middle of the picture, spoiling the shot.

The confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers at Harpers Ferry provides one of the grander views available to Washington County sightseers, and quite the photo op.

So we agree with South County preservationists that it is regrettable that the county plans to erect a 190-foot communications tower near Sandy Hook, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.

As regrettable, as it might be, however, we also believe the tower is necessary. Further, we believe the county has gone above and beyond the call of duty for making sure the tower is as unobtrusive as possible, and for taking public comment into consideration.


Emergency crews familiar with Sandy Hook call the area down along the river a "dead zone" for radio communication, endangering the people who live there, as well as those who might get in trouble out on the water.

The river at this point is popular with fisherman and rafters alike, and radio coverage in this active area cannot be considered a luxury.

For its part, the county has literally floated trial balloons to gauge the impact of the tower and it has already nixed one site that was judged to be too much of a visual impairment.

In our view, the bar of necessity and the bar of citizen comment have both been cleared, and the county should proceed with its plans to advance the safety of the people in and around Sandy Hook.

And speaking of aesthetics, that's becoming a key issue in the debate of the fate of the dam at Devil's Backbone Park.

The century-old dam on Antietam Creek is a wreck and needs to either be replaced or demolished, according to state inspectors.

At first blush, the answer seemed easy - repair the dam and preserve the tranquil scenery created by the impounded water as it lazily flows through a narrow, thinly wooded valley.

Further, consultants indicated it would likely be cheaper to repair the dam than it would be to destroy it, although this guess was not based on hard data.

But now, fly fishermen and watershed protection groups are stepping forward to say "not so fast." Dams, they believe, are ecological disaster areas, and the situation at Devil's Backbone offers a good chance to eliminate one of the multitude of troublesome dams that populate the nation's small creeks.

The evidence presented by these groups, to our mind, has been convincing enough that we believe the County Commissioners should give their position serious consideration.

As one river advocate said, the dam's backwater is "pretty, peaceful and nice." But a flowing stream through the bottom would also be "pretty, peaceful and nice."

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the county is in a "no-win" situation since sentiment is evenly split over keeping or razing the dam. In the end, he said, finances will probably be the determining factor.

If we could correct him slightly, the county is in a no-lose situation at Devil's Backbone. It is a beautiful piece of property that will continue to be a treasure whether the dam goes or stays.

We would also ask that - assuming the costs are relatively similar - money not be the determining factor in consideration of the park's future.

The bad economy won't be with us forever. Devil's Backbone will. The county should do what's best for the park, the people and the ecology, long-term.

If all things are equal, then money is an obvious deciding factor - but based on the testimony of river conservation groups, this might not be the case. The county should hear them out and make its decision based on the health of Antietam Creek.

Talk of dams - as in "water over the" - might apply to the Great Rest Area Caper of 2010, but we cannot let the opening of the new welcome center on Interstate 70 at South Mountain pass without comment.

This royal flush will cost taxpayers $18.4 million for the center and another $3.5 million for the wastewater treatment plant. It will be staffed by state employees.

We cannot help but recall that not so long ago, the Sideling Hill rest area on Interstate 68 - which included a geological learning center - was shuttered for the want of a couple hundred grand.

We recognize that plans for this palatial loo were in place long before the economy went south. And we realize that it's too late to pull the funding on something that's already been built.

But perhaps this Taj Urinal will offer a teachable moment. Rest areas, in our view, should include restrooms, vending machines, a water fountain and a shelf for some brochures. And maybe a big map.

All of the above can very likely be done for far less than the $20 million-plus the state is spending at the top of South Mountain - with money left over to keep the far more valuable rest area (educationally speaking) at Sideling Hill open for years and years to come.

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