Supervisors face static on radio towers
August 21, 2002
Half a year after entering into a $7.2 million contract agreement to build a new 800-MHz public safety radio system, progress is at once steady and staggering.
While the license acquisition process is advancing, the five telecommunication towers needed to operate the Motorola network are not all ready and an extension is being issued for delivery of the system design.
Center District Supervisor Joe Winkelmann said the delays in tower acquisition and system design compelled officials to extend deadlines, including the provision to back out of the deal.
“We expect to have a change order executed to extend our ability to back out of the agreement until we get a firmer handle on the tower situation,” he said.
George Tolis, a Marshall District resident and a researcher for the Institute for Defense Analyses, is a longstanding critic of the 800-MHz public safety radio project.
“The Board of Supervisors erred in rushing the county into a contract without first ensuring that the needed towers were available,” he said, while urging the supervisors to “cancel the contract.”
With an extension for the system design in the works, the tower sites took center stage in the controversy.
Of the five needed tower sites, county officials said agreements to use the SBA (Culpeper) tower, the Marshall tower and the View Tree tower are in place. The View Tree tower site needs to be re-built to support the new equipment, a requirement for any new system’s equipment.
But according to Cedar Run District Supervisor and Chairman Ray Graham, no agreement exists to use the Blue Mountain or Morrisville sites which are controlled by American Tower Corp. despite months of bargaining.
“It’s my belief that American Tower Corp. is just playing hardball,” he said.
Tom Ehrensberger, the Mid-Atlantic regional manager for American Tower Corp., said the delay is not on his end.
“The hold-up is on (the county’s) end. We gave them the dollar figure,” he said.
In a letter from American Tower Corp. dated Aug. 6, the county would pay more than $600,000 in rent over 20 years for the Morrisville site alone.
By comparison, the county has a no-fee agreement to use the Marshall tower site and a $1 per month agreement to use the SBA (Culpeper) tower site.
Despite the disparity, Ehrensberger said he can’t cut a deal that loses money for his company.
“I don’t feel that we’re holding the county hostage because we want to enter into a fair business,” he said.
“If they want to play hardball I can tell you that they will not benefit,” he said.
Legal battle for towers?
Backing up that claim is a resolution unanimously passed by the supervisors authorizing the county attorney to take aggressive steps to obtain the needed tower properties.
The resolution permits County Attorney Paul McCulla to purchase the tower property on behalf of the county at fair market value. If an acceptable price cannot be agreed to, then McCulla can initiate specific legal action, including condemnation proceedings or eminent domain suits, to obtain the tower property.
Graham hoped none of that would be necessary.
“We would prefer not to do that. We would prefer not to go to court. But if that’s what we need to do, then fine and dandy,” he said, noting that the legal proceedings could take about eight months.
Graham indicated that county officials could accept a $2,000 monthly fee agreement that sunsets in five years, or when another paying customer co-locates at the Morrisville tower.
“If American Tower Corp. doesn’t want to play, then we will have to go in a different direction,” he said.
Winkelmann suggested that if problems continue, the project could be in jeopardy.
“If something falls through and we run into continued difficulties, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see a motion to get it back on the table and debate it,” he said.
Winkelmann, who hesitantly voted in favor of the expensive safety system earlier this year, said he doesn’t regret his vote … yet.
“I think it remains to be seen whether a good decision was made. I support it now only to the extent that I pray it’s going to be successful,” he said.
Bill McIntyre can be reached at [email protected]
(©Arcom Publishing Inc. – Fauquier Times-Democrat 2002. Republished with permission.)