Lawyers for the County Council and administration of James M. Harkins met late last week to begin hashing out amendments to a bill proposed by the county executive that would exempt public safety communications towers entirely from the zoning code.
The county is working on a $23 million upgrade to its two-decade-old emergency communications system, and nine communications towers are a key part of the plan, officials say. The county wants to eliminate dead spots in coverage, both outdoors and inside buildings, where emergency workers cannot communicate.
Progress has been stymied, however, by lawsuits filed by residents in Bel Air and Joppa over two of the towers -- which could delay the upgrade by several years, Nancy Giorno of the county law department said during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday night.
Council members held the legislation over, saying they were concerned about the sweeping exemptions. Amendments to the bill are scheduled for introduction at the council's next meeting Dec. 2.
"The way the legislation came over, it just turned it loose," said Republican Council President Robert S. Wagner.
Mary Kate Herbig, council attorney, said the rules these towers would be exempt from under the proposed legislation include providing public notification, appearing before the Development Advisory Committee, and limiting signage, lighting and the size of equipment storage areas.
"The bill clearly exempts them from the entire zoning code," she said.
Council member Robert Cassilly, a Republican who represents the Bel Air area, said the council would like to see greater accountability in placing the towers while still hastening the process. He said public safety towers should be able to move through the approval process more quickly than a residential deck, but "by the same point, I think you can be expeditious without sacrificing basic fairness to people being affected."
The communications issue is a serious problem, he said. "It doesn't take long for [emergency workers] to enter `dead zones.'"
Wagner agreed. "Nobody ever disputed we needed the coverage for public safety," he said.
At the same time, he said, the council has to balance that with a sound policy.
Among the amendments the council is considering are inspections of towers every five years to ensure their safety; removal of towers not in use for five years; and a requirement that any new public safety towers be part of a comprehensive county public safety plan.
Ernest Crist, manager of the county's emergency operations center, said these nine towers are part of such a plan, which he plans to present to the council Dec. 2. He said Motorola, the company that is upgrading the communications system, recommended 10 towers to meet the county's goal of 95 percent coverage of the county 95 percent of the time. But the county was unable to find a suitable site in the Norrisville area, so only nine towers remain in the safety plan.
"We've already had to compromise slightly on our coverage," Crist said.
At several sites, the county has been able to situate its equipment on existing state or private towers, he said.
The nine towers are in the following locations, Crist said: in Madonna at Route 23 and Madonna Road; in Whiteford on Route 136 just east of Route 165; in Hickory on Ady Road behind the emergency operations center; in Joppa on Joppa-Magnolia fire company property; in Stony Forest at Carsins Run and Tower Road; in Lapidum at Route 155 and Lapidum Road; in Kingsville on U.S. 1 just inside the Baltimore County line; in Conowingo on U.S. 1 near Castleton Road; and in Bel Air at the old Tollgate landfill.
Tuesday night's hearing drew scores of fire, police and medical workers -- some who came to the meeting in hook and ladder and other emergency trucks, blocking a lane of Churchville Road and compelling the Bel Air police to post an officer on the street with flares to close down one lane.
Albert Bair, chief of the Aberdeen Fire Company, said that when firefighters and rescuers enter buildings, they lose all contact with dispatchers and other units. They may not even hear calls right next door, he said.
"The most vital piece of equipment we carry, even more than our weapon, is our radio," said Harford Sheriff Thomas Golding.