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Washington County told to stop work on emergency communications tower

At issue is how wide of an area must be considered when reviewing the tower's effect on historic properties

April 12, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com

SANDY HOOK — Federal officials have ordered Washington County to stop construction on an emergency communications tower near Maryland Heights due to unresolved concerns about how it could tarnish the views in the historic Harpers Ferry, W.Va. area.

The county began work at the south county tower site in mid-February, but halted on March 23 after receiving a stop-work notice from the Federal Communications Commission, said Pete Loewenheim, the county deputy director of information systems for wireless communications.

At issue is how wide of an area must be considered when reviewing the tower’s effect on historic properties to comply with federal preservation regulations.

The county completed the required review for the standard “area of potential effect” radius of about half a mile, but West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Office requested a larger review area, Loewenheim said.

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Now, it will be up to the FCC to decide which review area should apply, an FCC spokesman said.
Aubrey VonLindern, West Virginia’s historic preservation office historian, said her office requested in January 2011 that the area of potential effect be expanded to include parts of Harpers Ferry and the Appalachian Trail.

Concerned groups, including the National Park Service, were under the impression that the review process was ongoing, and that the next step would be to develop an agreement for how to minimize or mitigate the tower’s visual impact, VonLindern said.

Dennis Frye, chief historian for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said he learned the county was starting to clear the tower site when a construction site manager asked about the park boundaries.

“We were stunned that (the tower) had been approved without some form of formal notice” to concerned groups, Frye said.

The county had a license to construct on the condition it fully complied with FCC’s rules prior to construction, and county officials believed they had done so, according to a FCC spokesman.

“We believe we did everything that was needed to be done to meet the requirements,” Loewenheim said.

The tower is needed to improve radio communication coverage for emergency responders at the southern end of the county, he said. It would be a 190-foot tower with microwave dishes attached to a truss.

The county decided on the proposed site off of Miller Avenue near the base of Maryland Heights after rejecting an original site due to community opposition and analyzing several alternative sites. That analysis included raising a balloon to the tower height to test the visual impact.

Aesthetic concerns

Park officials don’t oppose the final proposed location, but want the microwave dishes camouflaged to blend into the nearby mountainside and think the tower height could be reduced because the new site added about 50 feet of elevation, according to Frye.

“The issue was, there was absolutely no compromise at all on a 190-foot tower with bright microwave dishes attached to it,” Frye said, noting that the park service had “had an excellent working relationship with the county, until now.”

The tower site is adjacent to National Park Service property at the eastern base of Maryland Heights and sits almost directly under the Stone Fort, one of a series of Civil War fortifications built on the mountain after the Battle of Antietam, Frye said.

In addition to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the West Virginia preservation office requested that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Washington County Historical Society and Citizens for the Preservation of Pleasant Valley, or CPPV, be consulted on how to mitigate the tower’s effect, according to a Feb. 16 letter from the preservation office to Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III posted on the CPPV website, upshotmd.org.

CPPV has also posted a response from Kroboth to the West Virginia office that outlines what the county has already done to mitigate the tower’s impact.

The balloon test showed there would be little visibility of the tower from sensitive cultural sites or points along the Maryland Heights trail, his letter said.

The tower would be partially visible from some parts of the Harpers Ferry park, but would not appreciably change its character or noticeably diminish the scenic qualities that make up its historic significance, the letter said.

Members of CPPV have mixed opinions on the tower, organization President Eric Whitenton said.

Loewenheim said he hoped the delay to the tower project would be minimal.

“It’s a work in progress, and we’re trying to get it resolved as quickly as possible,” he said.

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