The Federal Communications Commission has fined 21 Harford companies$8,000 each for failing to make sure that the flashing beacon on a broadcast tower in Churchville worked properly.
FCC administrators said that the beacon light had been burned out for several weeks in September, and the dark tower posed a danger to helicopters and airplanes.
The businesses that were fined used the tower to relay dispatch signals from their offices to company cars or trucks, allowing them a broader range, said Robert Mroz of the FCC enforcement division in Baltimore.
Mroz said the companies are financially liable for the lapse in maintenance because they hold FCC licenses for the radio frequencies they use.
But business owners contacted by The Harford County Sun said they did not know it was their responsibility to maintainthe tower beacon or to notify the Federal Aviation Administration when the tower was not illuminated.
And several of the business owners complained that they had not been notified by the FCC of the violation. They said they learned about the fines when they were contactedby a Washington lawyer who offered to negotiate the size of the fines with the FCC.
The violation is regarded seriously by the FCC andthe Federal Aviation Administration because a dark "repeater," or radio relay tower such as the one in Churchville, poses a danger to airplanes and helicopters whose pilots might not see it, said Duncan Pardue, a spokesman in the FAA's New York office.
"In the community where I live in New York City, there was a plane that ran into a radiotower that had no lights, and the people in the plane died," said Pardue.
Genstar Stone Products Co., based in Hunt Valley in Baltimore County, owned the 400-foot tower, which was torn down Jan. 21 because the company planned to begin mining the area near the tower site, said Genstar spokesman Gerald Talbert.
Though the tower has been torn down, Mroz said the businesses still can be fined for the September violation, though fines may be reduced.
"I only rent the space on the tower," said John G. Thalman, owner of Basic Services Inc., one of the 21 small companies facing the $8,000 fine. "I understand theimportance of airplane safety, but I'm trying to figure out why I'm liable for the maintenance of the tower if I don't own it. Economics-wise, the prospect of a fine in these economic times is very upsetting."
Thalman, like several other business owners, said he had not received a formal notice from the FCC that he was being fined and did not realize it was his responsibility to make sure the radio tower beacon was operating.
The tower, on Genstar's Churchville quarry property, was leased by Genstar to Bethesda-based Dispatch Communications, which in turn leased "space" on the tower to businesses using radio communications, said Mroz.
"As an FCC license-holder, if you're on a tower, you are directly responsible if a plane or helicopter crashes into a tower, and you're responsible for the maintenance; it's not just the person who owns the tower," said Mroz. "You have to look at the tower every single day, and if the lights don't work, you haveto notify the FAA."
The FAA would then issue a pilot's advisory, which would note that a tower at a particular longitude and latitude had no operating beacon. In the case of the Genstar tower, no one notified the FAA, although the tower was apparently dark for several weeks, said Mroz. The FCC discovered the violation after receiving an anonymous complaint, he said.
Among the businesses fined are Dispatch Communications, the tower operator, and Whiteford Construction Co.,Corun & Gatch Inc., McGuire Refrigeration, Magness Plumbing & Heating Inc., GBC Contractors Inc. and Aberdeen Florist.
Talbert, the Genstar spokesman, said the company "inherited" the radio tower in 1979when Genstar bought land in Churchville.
Talbert said Genstar leased the tower to Maryland Communications.
In 1989, when Genstar realized it would begin quarry operations near or beneath the tower, Genstar terminated the lease with Maryland Communications.
Dispatch Communications picked up the lease on a month-to-month basis after itpurchased Maryland Communications in January 1990, said Tim Haley, general manager of Dispatch Communications. He said Dispatch Communications relocated its operations to a newly built transmitting tower inHavre de Grace in January 1992.
"Dispatch Communications has the matter under investigation to gather all the property facts, and our FCC regulatory counsel is pursuing the matter," said Haley.
Talbert said the irony of the situation is "that we were informed by the FCC that there would be a $2,000 fine for everybody who had a license, and we discovered we were a licensee, so we're going to get fined like everybody else.
"We had an old FCC license for our own tower that was never used." Talbert added that he was surprised to learn the fine was $8,000.