FCC OKs radio tower

Agency approves District Court site near historic area

`No significant impact'

September 28, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ending a seven-month wait, the Federal Communications Commission decided yesterday to allow a 340-foot-high emergency radio tower just outside historic Ellicott City - an announcement that relieved Howard County officials and dismayed neighbors.

The tower - a key part of an upgrade to the county's public safety communications system - attracted controversy as soon as local officials announced the site, which is next to Howard District Court and overlooks the quaint 19th-century mill town. The state intends to build the tower and share it with the county.

For more than a year, residents and preservationists have urged project managers to use county-owned land less than a mile away, the site originally slated for the tower. But officials insisted the District Court parcel was superior.

The FCC agreed - and in its 12-page "memorandum opinion and order," it refused to accept residents' contention that the tall structure would harm the historic district.

"The Division finds the proposed antenna structure will have no significant impact on the Ellicott City community," stated the document, signed by Jeffrey S. Steinberg, deputy chief of the FCC's Commercial Wireless Division.

Residents were shocked at the finding.

"I absolutely do not know how they, in good conscience, can say that," said Sally Bright, a historic district activist, noting that the Maryland Historical Trust determined the tower would have an "adverse" effect on nearby properties.

Alan Ferragamo, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, said he was excited and relieved by the decision, which allows the state to restart the long-delayed project. Officials began preparing the land in January but were stopped by the FCC in February, when the agency determined that the state had not followed the federal process required if a tower could affect historic properties.

Deadline pressure

County officials had hoped for a quicker decision from the FCC, although an agency spokeswoman said the time involved was typical. The Ellicott City project, designed to orchestrate the county's upgraded communications system, is under deadline pressure, Ferragamo said.

The Ellicott City tower must be functioning well by February 2003 or the county risks losing 10 of its broadcast licenses - which would throw the entire communications upgrade into jeopardy, Ferragamo said. To meet the deadline, he said, the state needs to build the tower before icy weather sets in so the county can equip the tower and test it in the spring.

`Hopeful' for next week

State officials hope to start construction next week and finish by early November. "We're hopeful ... November's cooperative and they'll be able to climb the tower and put the equipment up there," Ferragamo said.

The FCC's decision might not be the final word on the project, however. Richard Bright, Sally Bright's husband and one of the opposition leaders, said residents may file a lawsuit in federal court.

`A sad day'

"They don't care about historic preservation," he said of the county government. "We think this is a sad day for Howard County and the state."

Everyone seems to agree that a tower is needed in Ellicott City - especially to ward against emergencies on Main Street, the most recent of which was a fire in 1999. Firefighters have said that dead spots in the communications system impeded their efforts to put out the blaze.

But some historic district activists said the original place slated for the tower - known as "the campus site" - would have done just as well, without the downside of a 340-foot structure on a hill overlooking the mill town. Richard Bright said technical experts who looked at the two sites for him concluded that they were essentially equal.

Case for `campus site'

"I think the campus site was a good place for it to be," said Jacque Galke, director of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, which is near the District Court.

The FCC said its analysis found that the campus site's topography would require officials to build a 500-foot tower, which would interfere with other communication signals.

That site "is not a satisfactory alternative," the FCC stated in its decision.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, which wanted the FCC to ensure a better site hadn't been overlooked, said her group will support its decision.

"We put our faith into the process because we're not scientists," she said. "The impact [the tower] has on the historic district is something we'll have to learn to work with."

`This is really great'

Howard County Fire Chief Joseph Herr said he is delighted that the final piece of the multimillion-dollar communications system can get under way.

"We've been waiting for a while," he said. "This is really great. It's going to give our people the opportunity to have the best equipment available - and that portable radio is the lifeline of firefighters."

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