Carroll commissioners are divided on telecommunications tower issue Debate focuses on savings vs. standing by principles

March 03, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County could save $250,000 if it scrapped plans to build a telecommunications tower at Springfield Hospital Center and placed its emergency-services antenna on a controversial tower in Sykesville.

But two county commissioners say no savings justify compromising principles and reversing their opposition to the Cellular One tower on Hollenberry Road.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, however, says the county should take a more practical stance.

Despite a lawsuit pending in the Court of Special Appeals, West Shore Communications, contractor for Cellular One, built a 200-foot tower near Sykesville in December.

The town, the county and neighbors of the tower are pursuing the case, which is scheduled for a hearing on April 11. If West Shore loses its case before the Court of Special Appeals, the company might have to tear the tower down.

Cellular One has offered the county free space on its tower. The county's cost to put its antenna at the Hollenberry Road site would be about $50,000.

The tower at the hospital would be less than one mile from the Hollenberry Road tower.

"If we back out of the suit, the free antenna space offer stands," said Mr. Dell. "It is ridiculous to turn down the offer and spend $300,000 in a budget crisis on a tower nobody wants."

Emergency Operations Center officials say it would cost about $300,000 to build the tower at the hospital.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown favors building a county-owned tower at Springfield and leasing space to other users to recoup costs.

"We are either a government of principles or we are not," said Mr. Brown. "I don't believe the Hollenberry Road tower should have been built so close to residences."

Commissioner Richard T. Yates said he wants nothing to do with the Hollenberry Road site.

"I won't put county equipment on that tower," he said. "Our word means something. We won't backtrack on a promise. It sends a bad signal."

The savings, in a year of budget constraints, justify the compromise, said Mr. Dell.

The Hollenberry tower, built on privately owned land, has been controversial since it was proposed nearly three years ago. The contractor prevailed through several Board of Zoning Appeals hearings and an appeal to the Circuit Court.

"If you build pending an appeal, you build at your own peril," said Judith Stainbrook, an attorney for the tower opponents.

Mr. Dell said he would postpone any decision until the suit was settled.

"There is always the possibility the tower opponents will be successful," he said.

But the county may not have the luxury of waiting indefinitely. The construction schedule for the emergency-response system must be maintained if it is to keep its Federal Communications Commission approval, officials said.

An antenna to serve South Carroll is critical to a new emergency system the county is installing. Six of the seven towers required by the system have been built. Only South Carroll, where the hilly terrain causes gaps in transmission, lacks a location for an antenna.

"If we wait until the final disposition to decide, we may create a hole in the emergency-services system," said David Duree, planning commission chairman.

"If we co-locate at Hollenberry Road and that tower has to come down, we'll have that expense and we'll still be in a holding period for a new tower," he said.

Grant Dannelly, a planning commission member, is asking the county to wait for the outcome of the lawsuit.

"As a commissioner and a taxpayer, I want to spend money wisely," he said.

Mr. Brown said he, too will continue "support for the appeal until the case is finally heard," but would "go forward with a tower at the hospital site."

Kathy Blanco-Losada, a Hollenberry Road resident who instigated the lawsuit, said putting the county's communications equipment on the Cellular One tower before the court case is resolved would be "akin to calling a used car dealer a crook and then asking him to cut you a deal," she said.

If the court decides the tower stays, all promises become moot, Ms. Blanco-Losada said.

"At that point, who would spend money on principle?" she said.

Dan Hughes, founder of Solutions for a Better South Carroll, urged the commissioners to stand by their original decision.

"From a moral and ethical point it is the wisest choice, although it may not be wisest from an economical point," he said. "Leaders who decide on pragmatic bases alone have no vision."

Mr. Dell said he plans to place the tower issue on the commissioners' agenda this week.

"In light of the budget crisis, I am very much concerned about having two towers to serve the same geographic area," he said.

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