By Jesse Wood
More than two years ago, the Blowing Rock Town Council unanimously decided to cease considering locating a telecommunications tower on Green Hill Circle. It was decided that “other possible avenues” would be researched and explored.
Somebody either forgot, disregarded or didn’t get the memo about Blowing Rock not wanting a public safety tower on Green Hill Circle.
“It was our understanding that was understood. Maybe the ball got dropped two years down the road and that communication was lost or forgotten. It’s our understanding that they were aware of that and that was part of why the committee was formed: to look at other options,” Town Manager Scott Fogleman said. “But like somebody said at the meeting, for all intents and purposes that is water under the bridge and our goal is to work together cooperatively to try to figure out how to improve public safety in Watauga County.”
Fogleman’s comments came after the Watauga County’s Communications Infrastructure Committee (CIC), which is tasked with improving emergency communications in the county, hosted its most-attended meeting in its 10-month history on Tuesday.
(In September 2015, Watauga County formed the CIC at the request of the county managers. The voting members on the committee are Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs, Blowing Rock Fire Chief Kent Graham and Jeff Virginia, director of Watauga County Communications and Emergency Services.)
On Tuesday, not quite 50 folks were present, primarily including concerned citizens in Blowing Rock and the entire Blowing Rock Town Council, which scheduled a special meeting at the same time and place as the CIC, in order for all of the council members to attend and not violate meeting laws.
Meeting with the committee were representatives from Motorola, the vendor for VIPER (Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders). VIPER is an interoperable communications system under the N.C. Department of Public Safety umbrella.
The point of the meeting was to analyze coverage across the county and expected costs of enhancement. Currently, VIPER sites exist at Buckeye Knob, Rich Mountain, Beech Mountain and Deep Gap Mountain, according to maps shown on Tuesday.
In May, the Town of Blowing Rock received a letter from Marty Randalll of the N.C. Department of Public Safety stating the department’s renewed interest in a VIPER site at Green Hill Circle, a beneficial location because of elevation.
“A site at Green Hill is still on our list of sites to be built and would allow VIPER to reach the 95 percent [street level with a 3-watt portable radio] coverage goal in Watauga County. It would provide interoperable communications coverage in the town of Blowing Rock and surrounding areas necessary for emergency response during crisis situations where other agency assistance is needed,” Randall wrote.
On Tuesday, the Motorola representatives showed up with maps only depicting VIPER coverage as if the Green Hill Circle site existed, so during the meeting a new map was made to show existing coverage without a potential telecommunications tower at the Green Hill Circle site.
County Manager Deron Geouque started the meeting by addressing those in attendance. Geouque said that one point of the meeting was to figure out if the Town of Blowing Rock was interested in having public safety towers in the city limits or its ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction).
“If not, it affects our overall plan to improve the system,” Geouque said.
Geouque then said that the state is no longer interested in pursuing a site at Green Hill Circle and that $1 million in federal funding for building a new VIPER tower is now “off the table” until funding comes around again in two years. He said that a VIPER site at Green Hill Circle would cost $6 to $7 million versus $8 to 9 million because more sites would have to be utilized and less funding.
“Even with additional sites, coverage will not be as good as if it were located on Green Hill,” Geouque said.
Ed Haar, a sales manager for Motorola in the Carolinas, said that the company doesn’t necessarily go around and tell municipalities, counties and states where to put the towers.
“But we do look at coverage and say let’s figure out where to put sites if we need more coverage,” Haar said. “Public safety is our life and blood at Motorola. For police, fire, EMS, it’s all about radio coverage.”
Haar, who sounded like a yes man (i.e. salesman) during the meeting depending on whether he was talking to government and emergency officials or concerned citizens in the audience, and another Motorola representative did say that multiple smaller sites and/or other equipment could be utilized to achieve adequate coverage with less obtrusions if there were objections to the proposed 100-foot tower at Green Hill Circle.
Asked throughout the meeting about collocating, Haar said that is typically frowned upon by the state and Motorola because of recurring costs and other regulations if utilizing another government agencies’ tower, such as a fire tower near Moses Cone in the National Park Service or another tower a mile from the heart of Blowing Rock in Caldwell County.
Watauga County Board of Commissioner Perry Yates essentially served as a moderator and mediator at the meeting. He noted that “lack of communication” probably dragged this issue for at least two years longer than needed and expressed sympathy for concerned residents.
“If I had a home on Green Hill and paid a million dollars … I would not want to give up my view for a radio site either. But as a county commissioner, it’s also my responsibility when the state gives us money to try to secure that million to help all of the citizens in the best way possible,” Yates said.
“If it can’t be on Green Hill and can’t be in Blowing Rock’s ETJ, where can it be put?” Yates asked. “And the reason we do look at VIPER is because once a VIPER station is put in, the state maintains it. If we don’t go viper, then the county has to maintain the site.”
Yates started to wrap up the meeting by stating that the Green Hill Circle site was off the table and the best other possibilities will be researched to see if the coverage is adequate and if the nearby residents or property owners at other potential sites will allow a tower in their backyard.
Before the meeting adjourned, attorney Chelsea Garrett, who represents the concerned citizens of Green Hill Circle, stood up and said that her clients don’t want another two years to pass before due diligence occurs on other possible sites.
“They just want to know what’s going to happen in the next several months to move this forward, so we are not sitting here with bad coverage in two years and no money,” Garrett said.
Yates responded by saying that Watauga County would work hand-in-hand with the local fire, police and rescue departments, the N.C. Department of Public Safety and Motorola to figure out a plan moving forward, so when the next round of funding is ready to be disbursed, a plan for a public safety tower in the southern part of the county is in place.