Prospect of 100-Foot Communications Tower Riles Up Nearby Blowing Rock Residents Recently

Published Friday, January 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm

By Jesse Wood

Jan. 10, 2014. A group of Blowing Rock residents are riled up at the prospect of a 100-foot tower for public safety communications and cellular service being placed atop Green Hill Circle.  

In November, Planning Director Kevin Rothrock sent a two-page letter to the owners of about 500 properties within 4,000 feet of the proposed tower on Green Hill Circle. Rothrock noted that the “major change driving” the investigation into the tower is related to a Federal Communications Commission law that went into effect on Jan. 1.

“While the overall capacity for additional channels has increased, each channel is less powerful and cannot carry its frequency as far.  In most areas with flat terrain, weaker channels are not as impactful as here in Blowing Rock.  We find ourselves now having to reconsider various alternatives related to improving our communications infrastructure, including the possible addition of one or more public safety communications towers,” Rothrock wrote.

One-day after that letter was sent, Tucker Yates, a resident of Green Hill Circle, voiced his opposition to the potential tower during the public comment section of the Nov. 12 Blowing Rock Town Council meeting because it would be “unsightly;” “unfavorably affect” property values; and be “detrimental” to the health of those residing nearby, according to meeting minutes. He asked that the town reconsider.

Then at the following monthly council meeting in December, a Green Hill Circle resident spoke on behalf of a “large group” of citizenry that opposed the proposed tower and mentioned that more than 200 property owners had signed a petition to express their opposition, according to an account in Blowing Rock News that described the meeting as “high drama.”

Concerns from citizens included that the tower would be visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway and other entry points to the town; that the town should exhaust all other possible locations before settling on the Green Hill Circle site; and zoning language that could derail a tower in a residential site was cited, among other concerns.

Speaking on Friday morning, Rothrock said that this opposition to the proposed tower is a “classic example” of NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.

Rothrock mentioned that this tower is important for current and future public safety today. He also mentioned that a public safety tower, which could allow space for a commercial cellular antenna, is allowed in all zoning districts with a conditional use permit.  

While other locations are being considered, Rothrock mentioned that the Green Hill Circle location is the most advantageous because it’s the highest point in town and near the Blue Ridge escarpment. With Green Hill on the edge of that escarpment, the coverage area is considerably vaster than other areas amidst our mountainous terrain. Rothrock also mentioned that a water tank and antennas exist on the town-owned property to provide public works, fire, police and emergency services from that location.

While the town is currently in the process of reaching out to local, state and federal “public safety partners” such as the National Park Service, N.C. Highway Patrol and Watauga Medics, for example, it will also reach out to commercial providers “in the event that space is available,” Rothrock’s letter states. 

 During the 2013 election for the Blowing Rock mayoral race, Mayor J.B. Lawrence said he supported improving the reception in Blowing Rock that he called “atrocious” during a candidate forum. At the time, he said that AT&T representative, during a recent discussion, had already “made a commitment” to improving service.  

Lawrence said that the town needs to use available technology and suggested making the antennas look like a tree, a church steeple or a chimney on a building. 

“That technology is available. We’ve just got to bring it to town,” Lawrence said during the candidate forum at Blowing Rock Elementary School. “We want to protect our views, but don’t we want our electronic devices to work well.” 

Lawrence did add that if an emergency happened in some corners of the town that lack quality reception, people would be “in trouble.” 

While the proposed “Green Hill tower” topic has made the rounds in the community over the past two months, it isn’t a new topic. In 2010, Blowing Rock was looking to partner with Caldwell County to secure funding through the N.C. Highway Patrol for a tower on Green Hill Circle. Rothrock mentioned that Caldwell decided on another location and state funding went elsewhere.

In all, Rothrock said this is a process that the staff has never really endured during his time – aside from a 13-foot commercial antenna for Carolina West that was installed in a “stealth” manner inside a chimney at the Food Lion

“This is a little different,” Rothrock said, adding that the town and its citizens, a tower company and other public agencies will be involved in the project. “There are still a lot of unknowns.” 

In his November letter to residents, Rothrock mentioned some of those:

“Some of the questions we will be working to answer as we continue our research into this very important public safety communications improvement project include the following:

  • Are there any health dangers associated with radio frequency waves?
  • How large would the footprint of a tower be?
  • Would there be any guy wires?
  • What color would a tower be?
  • What color would make a tower least visually impactful?
  • Would it be possible to disguise a tower (tree-like)?
  • How much would the tower cost and who would pay for it?
  • Would there need to be an associated equipment building? How large?  Where?
  • Would there be any noise coming from the site? (e.g. air conditioning / heat units)
  • Would there be cell phone equipment on the tower as well? If so, how would it improve coverage?
  • What would happen to the old antennas up there?
  • Why do we need a new tower?
  • Why does it need to be so high?
  • What other possible tower locations are under consideration?
  • What would the costs / benefits be of more and smaller public safety communications towers?”

As it stands, Rothrock said there is no timeframe for this project.

“It’s not a fast process,” Rothrock said. “It takes time to gather information, and when you find one answer, there are additional questions related to that.”

He reiterated that Green Hill Circle is just one possibility and said that a public hearing wouldn’t take place until further into the due diligence period. He also added that a public hearing would take place at a time when the seasonal residents are in Blowing Rock, too.

“We want to have the public involved when most people are here,” Rothrock said. “But there is still a lot we have to do.”  


 

Check out Blowing Rock’s ordinance particular to towers here

For comparison, check out Watauga County’s ordinance on reception towers here. The ordinance to regulate wireless communication towers includes public safety towers and roughly 15 or so regulations. For example, towers located on major mountain ridges should be no taller than 30 feet, while towers located on sites off of those major mountain ridges shall be no taller than 100 feet. 


Nov. 11 Letter To Nearby Residents

Date:    November 11, 2013    

To:      

Re:       Possible Public Safety Communications Tower and Request for Email Addresses

The provision of prompt, reliable, and capable public safety services in our community is one of the most important things we do.  Service delivery mechanisms have continued to evolve over time, with many of them made possible due to technological advancements.  From the siren at Town Hall beckoning volunteer fire fighters in days of yester year, to today when police officers and firefighters can receive real time updates on their computer while en route to the scene of the emergency, service levels and associated data needs have changed.  Several times over the last few years, various communications enhancement opportunities have been evaluated.  The private sector has made some minor investments for their cellular infrastructure including AT&T’s small antennas on many telephone poles in Town as well as Carolina West’s antenna installation in the chimney at the Food Lion on Valley Boulevard. 

The Town of Blowing Rock and all of the area public safety agencies utilize radio systems to communicate internally and with one another.  The system is allocated to users and organized into a number of channels regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The major change driving our current investigation into technology alternatives is related to recent mandatory narrow-banding channel distribution changes by the FCC that became law January 1, 2013.  The changes were made to increase the operability and number of channels available nationwide.  While the overall capacity for additional channels has increased, each channel is less powerful and cannot carry its frequency as far.  In most areas with flat terrain, weaker channels are not as impactful as here in Blowing Rock.  We find ourselves now having to reconsider various alternatives related to improving our communications infrastructure, including the possible addition of one or more public safety communications towers.  

The process of improvement communication is just beginning, and no decisions have been made thus far.  In terms of tower location alternatives, one of the locations previously considered was Green Hill due to its elevation.  As part of due diligence and preliminary planning, the Town of Blowing Rock coordinated a balloon test on Tuesday, October 29, 2013 to help assess how high 100 feet appears at the Green Hill water tank site relative to the surroundings.  The Town worked with a technical services company (Chase Real Estate Services) to assist with the logistics of the balloon test, just as other expert firms will be utilized for their respective expertise throughout Town.

While we don’t know yet the ultimate height of a possible tower in this particular location, we do not believe it would need to be any higher than 100 feet.  We attempted to notify residents in the adjacent area about the test, but if we were not able to reach you, we certainly apologize.  During the test, we took pictures from multiple vantage points and are happy to share them with you.  If we find through the continued evaluation process that another balloon test would be helpful, we certainly may consider doing so. 

The visual impact of a potential tower is one of many associated considerations.  Some of the questions we will be working to answer as we continue our research into this very important public safety communications improvement project include the following:

  • Are there any health dangers associated with radio frequency waves?
  • How large would the foot print of a tower be?
  • Would there be any guy wires?
  • What color would a tower be?
  • What color would make a tower least visually impactful?
  • Would it be possible to disguise a tower (tree-like)?
  • How much would the tower cost and who would pay for it?
  • Would there need to be an associated equipment building? How large?  Where?
  • Would there be any noise coming from the site? (e.g. air conditioning / heat units)
  • Would there be cell phone equipment on the tower as well? If so, how would it improve coverage?
  • What would happen to the old antennas up there?
  • Why do we need a new tower?
  • Why does it need to be so high?
  • What other possible tower locations are under consideration?
  • What would the costs / benefits be of more and smaller public safety communications towers?

If you have other questions or concerns, I encourage you to email them to me at krothrock@townofblowingrock.com and we will incorporate them into our review.  While there is not a specific schedule associated with our review, the following sequence of events is currently anticipated:

Needs Identification – The Town of Blowing Rock is in the process of reaching out to our public safety partners to determine what their current and future communication needs are for the Blowing Rock area.  These agencies include the Watauga Ambulance Service, Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue, Blowing Rock Police Department, Blue Ridge Parkway (National Park Service), and the North Carolina Highway Patrol and County Agencies.  In the event that space is available, we are also contacting commercial providers of communication services such as Verizon, AT&T, and Carolina West so that their possible customer demand based needs may be considered should capacity be available.  Should mutually agreeable terms be agreed upon, private sector companies may be able to help offset tower related costs through direct contributions and/or long term lease arrangements.

Tower Location Determination and Design – Once the needs have been identified, possible tower size and location options can be more fully evaluated along with the associated technical, aesthetic, and funding impacts of each.

Town Consideration Process – A tower would require a conditional use permit review through the Town staff, the Planning Board and a public hearing before Town Council.  There would be multiple opportunities for public input during this consideration process.

We would like to build a list of interested persons and email addresses to help improve the speed and effectiveness of future related correspondence.  If you are interested in being added to our email distribution list, please email your name, address, and email address to me at krothrock@townofblowingrock.com or feel free to give me a call at (828) 295-5240.

Thank you for your help and input with these challenges and difficult decisions as we work together to create solutions that minimize the impact for all of us. 

Sincerely,

Kevin Rothrock, AICP

Planning Director

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