By David Rogers. June 28, 2016. BLOWING ROCK, NC — After the first 60 seconds of what was billed as an informal committee meeting Tuesday morning — that evolved into a Blowing Rock “town hall” public hearing, of sorts — most of the estimated 60 people crowding the County Commissioners’ chambers were scratching their heads and wondering why they were even there.
Blowing Rock News coverage of Blowing Rock town government is made possible by a sponsorship from Blowing Rock Medical Park and PLUS Urgent Care, divisions of UNC-Caldwell Health Care
COVER IMAGE: The shaded areas in the coverage map on the left is with a Green Hill Circle tower, without on the right. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
Most of the people stayed, however. They went home satisfied that a 100+ foot tower would not be erected in the center of Green Hill Circle, but they also received a flashcard education on emergency communications systems, particularly in the High Country.
The Issue That Really Wasn’t (At Least On This Day)
Supposedly at issue for this meeting was the prospective erection of a communications tower on town property adjacent to or over the water storage tank in the middle of Green Hill Circle. After a highly vocal and emotional backlash from the residents and neighbors of Green Hill Circle to that prospect more than two years ago — a public outcry that even included the threat of a neighborhood lawsuit should such a tower be approved or erected — the then sitting Town Council unanimously voted at their 2014 retreat to discontinue researching the possibility of a communications tower on Green Hill Circle.
Fast forward and somehow the issue bubbled up again over the last couple of months, much to the consternation of the residents in the area who, rightly or wrongly, understood the Town to have pledged that Green Hill Circle would no longer be considered as a site for a communications tower.
Ironically, somewhere along the way to Tuesday morning’s meeting about communications, communications broke down.
Why are we all here?
According to Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque in his introductory remarks prior to the multi-agency committee meeting, he learned last week from the North Carolina Highway Patrol that the state’s funding help for a communications tower on Green Hill — or anywhere else within the Blowing Rock town limits or extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) — had been reallocated to other jurisdictions, that a VIPER site anywhere in Blowing Rock was “off the table.”
Posed one attendee to Blowing Rock News after Tuesday’s meeting, “I understood Mr. Geouque to say that he had communicated the Highway Patrol decision to his committee members, so why did none of them communicate that information to their constituents, or at least make sure that all of the Blowing Rock Commissioners understood the Highway Patrol decision so they could tell the interested parties. In other words, if it has been known for at least a week that Green Hill Circle is not even being considered anymore, why are we all here? This town government suffers from poor communication with its citizens, especially on important issues, and there is a marked lack of transparency in its decision-making.”
Tuesday’s multi-agency committee meeting was chaired by County Commissioner Perry Yates, but also included County Manager Geouque, County Emergency Services Director Jeff Virginia, Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs, Blowing Rock Emergency Services Director Kent Graham, and Blowing Rock Town Manager Scott Fogleman. Two Blowing Rock Commissioners had been invited to attend, but when others of the five Blowing Rock commissioners expressed an interest in attending, public notice of the meeting was given last week. All five Blowing Rock commissioners were in attendance Tuesday morning: Sue Sweeting, Albert Yount, Jim Steele, Doug Matheson and Ray Pickett, as well as Planning Director Kevin Rothrock, Police Chief Tony Jones and Town Clerk Sharon Greene.
What Is VIPER?
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) website notes that interoperable communications was identified in the General Assembly’s Criminal Justice Information Network report of 1995 as a critical need for public safety agencies when responding to emergencies. “After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, it became even clearer that public safety officials needed to have the ability to communicate with one another on a single radio.”
In summary, the NCDPS maintains that public safety officials in North Carolina should be able to communicate directly with other public safety officials without having to relay messages through an intermediary. “When put in place, interoperable communications will benefit all public safety agencies when dealing with daily emergency calls or large scale disasters. This will make fire, rescue, and law enforcement agencies better able to serve the citizens of North Carolina.”
We were unaware of the Blowing Rock decision.
Although the most contentious issue was tempered right at the get-go, the vast majority of the audience members remained to hear the presentation by representatives from Motorola, the primary supplier of the VIPER (acronym for “Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders”) communications equipment. According to information researched by Blowing Rock News at RadioReference.com, it appears that 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have so far adopted the VIPER interoperable communications system.
Then North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten commissioned a study group in 1994 on the need for a statewide common radio system for public safety. The VIPER short term “tactical solution,” according to a December 2004 report found by Blowing Rock News at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website, was fully funded in 2003 by resources from the North Carolina portion of the 2003 Part II (U.S.) Department of Homeland Security funding.
The longer-term, “strategic solution” consists of building a statewide, trunked 800 Mhz radio system that expands a then existing investment made by the North Carolina Highway Patrol. In each North Carolina county, the goal is to provide 95% of street coverage with a 3-watt portable radio, according to the FCC report.
Balancing Constituent Interests
It was readily apparent from the discussion among the committee members, as well as statements by the Motorola representatives, that the challenge for emergency service officials and municipal jurisdictions is how to implement an interoperable communications system like VIPER to achieve the greater good while taking into consideration the needs or interests of those constituents who are adversely affected by tower construction.
Rightly or wrongly, and even though it required the threat of a costly lawsuit, the residents of Green Hill Circle have persuasively argued that a tower on top of their little corner of the universe is not in their best interests for aesthetic and financial, as well as for public safety reasons.
How do you achieve the greater good while taking into consideration the interests of constituents adversely affected?
For constituents and outsiders alike, it doesn’t matter anymore whether the outer Green Hill Circle residences with 50-mile views will suffer in their respective property values because a tower is in the center of their neighborhood, or whether the tower is visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, or whether there might be a 1% probability that the tower will fall down on a nearby house. It doesn’t matter, because Green Hill Circle was taken out of play by Town leadership two years ago — and County or regional emergency services managers should have been informed of that decision so they could plan a solution with that knowledge.
According to both Geouque and Yates, they were unaware of the Blowing Rock decision until just recently.
As Geouque explained in his introductory remarks, “In the past eight years, we have had three opportunities to secure up to $1 million in grant money. That is now gone.”
Added Yates, “Now that it is clear to everyone that the Green Hill site and even all of Blowing Rock are off the table, we need to explore other options…We need to figure out (other sites) where towers can go and hope that grants are still available two years from now to help us pay for them.”
There Are Options
Presenting to the committee on Tuesday were representatives of Motorola, including sales vice president Ed Haar who served as primary spokesperson. The Motorola team presented map graphics of prospective VIPER communications coverage in a variety of environments, including handheld radios on the street, in light buildings, and mobile coverage.
The frustration for both Yates and Geouque were readily apparent when the coverage maps initially shown by the Motorola team still included a Blowing Rock site. “Our purpose today,” observed Geouque, “is to try to come up with alternative approaches to providing coverage in Watauga County with Green Hill Circle now definitively off the table. We need to see a coverage map without a Blowing Rock tower.”
Yes, I want emergency services to have coverage because at my age I might need them to have it.
The Motorola support personnel were able to scramble and provide that graphic within about 10 minutes by using their available laptop computer to recalculate coverage, but the presentation miscue only added to the level of frustration in the room among those present.
Leigh Dunston, a Blowing Rock resident and former attorney, sat in the audience front row and at one point made clear that while he did not favor a 100+ foot tower on Green Hill Circle, “…at my age, yes, I want our emergency services personnel to have emergency communications service — because I might need them to have it.” Given that personal perspective, Dunston asked Mr. Haar if there were alternatives for providing coverage that did not include a tower on Green Hill Circle.
Haar was quick to answer that yes, there are several alternatives. “It’s just a matter of identifying and evaluating the alternative sites to see what provides the optimum level of coverage,” he said.
And then of course there are the cost considerations. Geouque portrayed a VIPER-integrated system with a Green Hill Circle tower would cost the county $6-7 million to implement, partially offset by the Highway Patrol’s $1 million grant, but perhaps more than $8 million with alternatives and, of course, now without the $1 million grant.
In a subsequent telephone interview with Blowing Rock News, when asked about the County’s available capital resources Geouque explained, “Well no, we don’t have the money for a $7-8 million project. Once we have clearly identified the appropriate coverage solution, then we have to evaluate the funding alternatives.”
The potential for a future grant (in two years) is hardly a given. “Even with a viable plan there are no guarantees,” Geouque cautioned.
During the course of the discussion and particularly in answer to questions from the audience, several bits of information came to light, including:
- It might require as many as three smaller towers (in yet to be identified locations) to provide the same level of coverage as a tower on Green Hill Circle.
- It is possible that Motorola’s VIPER technology can be installed on existing cell or other towers, however in most cases a memorandum of understanding with negotiated terms would be required for each and there would likely be a minimum cost of $1,500 per month for leasing tower space, and it could range as high as $3,000 to $5,000 per month.
- Towers such as that proposed for Green Hill Circle on property owned by the Town could also be revenue generators for the Town as cellular telephone companies sought to lease space on the tower to improve their cell coverage in the area.
- While areas especially in southeastern and eastern Watauga County would not be covered even with a Green Hill Circle tower, without replacement towers the areas or neighborhoods primarily affected would include Aho, Sampson, Blue Ridge Mountain Club, Triplett and Buffalo Ridge, as well as parts of Blowing Rock.