Officials await decision from FCC on impact of tower in Ellicott City

Project halted

deadline for completion looms

April 09, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Government officials hope that months of debate over an emergency communications tower in Ellicott City - sparked by plans to put it near the historic district - will conclude soon, but they say they're stuck in limbo.

State officials who want to build the tower, county administrators who want to use it and preservationists with the Maryland Historical Trust drafted a "memorandum of agreement" last month that outlines ways the state would limit the tower's impact if it were built next to Howard County District Court, several hundred feet from Ellicott City's historic district.

The state promises, among other things, to keep logos off the tower and to plant trees around it.

But state officials can't restart construction of the tower on the contested site - or opt for another location - unless the Federal Communications Commission approves.

The FCC ordered a stop to the work in February after residents asked the agency to look into the matter.

"We just want them to move forward - give us a decision one way or another," said Ed Ryan, the state's assistant director for wireless communications. "The biggest problem with the process [is] there are no deadlines. It can drag on for years."

Residents and activists who protested the site had asked state officials months ago to consider county-owned land on Rogers Avenue, farther from the historic homes and shops on Ellicott City's Main Street and nearby.

They argued that the 340-foot tower, topped by an 18-foot antenna, would be a modern intrusion into the quaint 19th-century mill town.

Bob Brown, a Main Street attorney who opposes the District Court site, said no one is trying to keep a tower from being built in Ellicott City. "Move it back, that's all we're saying - and not very far," he said.

Others - from firefighters to some Main Street merchants - have contended that the District Court site is ideal for communications, and they worry that delays could jeopardize the project.

The tower is part of plans by the state and county to upgrade their communications systems and fix reception problems - including dead spots on Main Street that vexed public safety workers during a 1999 fire.

How close the FCC is to issuing a decision is unclear. Meribeth McCarrick, an agency spokeswoman, said she can't give a timeline. Staff members hope both sides will agree to a site, she said.

Alan Ferragamo, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, said it's his understanding that the FCC wants an assessment of the tower's impact on nearby historic properties, to be sent in after the agency approves a memorandum of agreement.

The FCC would give residents 30 days to comment on the study, he said.

Ferragamo is getting nervous because the state had planned to finish building the tower last month.

Officials wanted more than a year to test and correct problems with the communications equipment, he said.

The deadline for the entire process - set by the FCC, which issues licenses for communications towers - is February 2003, Ferragamo said. If the deadline isn't met, they will lose their license. Officials acquired the license after another jurisdiction lost it by getting off schedule, he added.

"There's talk of maybe getting an extension, but we can't count on that," he said. "These are very precious licenses."

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