Tensions rise over proposed tower

Emergency network will ruin landscape, say W. Maryland residents

August 06, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO - On a clear day, the tree-lined ridge of South Mountain, which separates Washington and Frederick counties, can be seen from miles around - from the fields where soldiers battled on the way to the bloody fighting at Antietam, from the Appalachian Trail that attracts millions of visitors a year, from the town of Burkittsville that looks much as it did in the 19th century.

Unlike the more pristine foothills nearby, South Mountain carries a tower town of sorts - a fire lookout tower from the 1930s, a cluttered microwave tower, a T-shaped tower belonging to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Now, a proposal by two state agencies would add a 180-foot emergency communications tower with an extra 15-foot antenna to South Mountain at Lamb's Knoll, 1,750 feet in the sky, a tower twice the size of the next tallest structure up there.

To some, the tower is a vital link in a network connecting paramedics statewide to emergency room doctors in Baltimore.

To others, it is just another kind of visual pollution - along with the billboards and power lines and high-density housing - that continues to pose a threat to the historical experience they've worked so diligently to protect.

"The most prominent feature on the landscape will be something that was put up yesterday," said Paul Gilligan, chairman of the Mid-Maryland Land Trust Association.

The $100,000 tower is needed by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS), which is replacing its lower-frequency analog system with a higher-frequency digital system - the latter needing more towers because the new signal travels a shorter distance.

The Lamb's Knoll site is an important spot on the signal's trip out to Western Maryland, said MIEMSS spokesman Thomas H. Miller. The tower would house other public safety antennas and would have space to lease to wireless telephone companies.

The tower has received preliminary approval from several agencies but is under internal review by the Department of Natural Resources, which would be its owner because it would sit on the agency's property.

But late last week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, coming down on the side of preserving the view, wrote a letter to two of his Cabinet secretaries, including the head of DNR, asking them to come up with alternatives to the South Mountain site. His letter comes on the heels of one from the Federal Communications Commission last month that told the state not to proceed with tower construction until further environmental studies are conducted.

The fuss over the tower began last month when Paul M. Rosa of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy stumbled upon plans for it on the Internet and set in motion a letter-writing campaign to stop it - or at least to allow public input into what the structure would look like.

The Maryland Historical Trust is one of the agencies that has signed off on the tower. If South Mountain were pristine, it would be an issue, said Michael K. Day, chief of the office of preservation services at the trust. But the damage has been done, and another tower wouldn't cause much more, he said.

"We're very hard-pressed to say an addition of one more feature will dramatically change the effect or the damage done," he said. "The site has basically already been compromised.

"You've got to take into account the visitor's experience," Day said. "The visitor likes to be able to look out across the landscape and see it the way it was when the historical event took place."

But, he added, "it's an unrealistic expectation."

Gilligan said he doesn't understand why some state agencies would set aside more than $20 million for a Frederick County Rural Legacy land preservation project there, and then others would come along and pay to scar the view of the sky.

"What makes it strange is why would you do that ... after you put a ton of money into the process?" asked Gilligan, who is a former mayor of Burkittsville. "When you're standing in one of the best-preserved areas, and an agency turns around and breaks up the integrity of the area, it's rather hypocritical."

Folks in Pleasant Valley have long fought the intrusion of even the 20th century. They talk about the power company that wanted to put a transformer station on the side of a ridge on a wide-open slice of property - until it was scared off by all the fuss. And a high-density housing development being proposed for nearby Knoxville is about to receive this group's ire.

"It's beautiful out here, and we want to keep it that way," said resident Amanda Roach, a mother of two.

Rosa, the most vocal opponent of the tower proposal, said he thinks a compromise can be reached to make the tower less obtrusive.

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