Officials await FCC's decision on radio tower

County worried that delay could ruin plans for emergency system

September 27, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials fear that a long wait for a Federal Communications Commission decision on whether the government can build a controversial 340-foot-tall tower overlooking historic Ellicott City might prove fatal to their multimillion-dollar effort to upgrade the county's emergency radio capability.

Seven months after promising to quickly decide the issue, the FCC has not spoken. Even if the FCC approves the site soon, contractors will be battling to meet a radio licensing deadline, said Alan Ferragamo, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works.

"It's getting to crunch time," he said.

Howard could lose about half of the broadcast licenses it needs to operate the new communications system if the deadline isn't met. Eight other towers have been built or improved to close gaps in emergency communications across the county, but the Ellicott City tower is the keystone.

"It orchestrates the system," said Ferragamo. "This is our prime site."

Even if the county beats the deadline, Ferragamo said, the wait will be expensive because extra engineers and technicians will be needed to speed the installation and testing of equipment on the tower.

"Every month that goes by is a month that we will not have the system up for the public safety people," he added.

State officials want to build the radio tower next to Howard County District Court and share it with the county. Ferragamo said officials had intended to finish the structure in March and must complete the work before icy weather sets in.

The tower's equipment must be tested in the spring to make sure leaf-covered trees do not interfere with coverage, and the system must be functioning well by February 2003, he said. Otherwise, he said, the FCC can revoke 10 of the county's 800-megahertz licenses and give them to another jurisdiction. Howard got those licenses when the District of Columbia failed to meet a licensing deadline.

FCC spokeswoman Meribeth McCarrick said this week that the agency is not ignoring the tower project.

"It's not uncommon for an issue like this to take this amount of time," she said. "It's an important issue, and it's actively being worked on."

McCarrick declined to comment on possible licensing problems stemming from the delay.

Ferragamo said he has heard from the FCC that a decision could be made soon, but officials didn't say when.

Preservationists and historic district residents have opposed the District Court site, which is outside the boundaries of Ellicott City's historic district. Months ago, they tried to persuade officials that the very tall tower could be built on county-owned land farther from the quaint 19th-century mill town.

State and county officials insisted that the District Court site was ideal and started preparing the land in January. But the FCC stepped in at the beginning of February, stopping construction, after determining that the state had not followed all federal procedures. If a tower might adversely affect historic buildings, the agency requires an environmental assessment and considers the project more carefully.

FCC officials collected comments through mid-July. Since then, supporters and opponents of the site have been waiting and wondering.

"We don't mind," said Sally Bright, who lives in a historic district neighborhood near the courthouse and thinks a tower there would overshadow the community. "Obviously someone is really looking at this."

Bright said she sympathizes with the county but recalls FCC regulations specifying that the environmental assessment should be conducted early.

"They didn't do that," she said. "They started at the end of the process."

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, is frustrated by the amount of time the FCC is taking. She expected a decision two months ago.

Cochran thinks there's nothing to be gained by the wait and plenty to be lost.

"It discourages people from following the process, because it's punitive," she said. "This is unbelievable. I can understand why the county didn't want to get into this mess. It just shouldn't have taken this long - it should have been a quick decision."

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