A proposed tower that emergency workers say could help patch dead spots in Jefferson County’s communications system is at the heart of a controversy in Arnold on two fronts.
Building the 309-foot tower on the property of DeClue and Sons Tree Care, 3500 Telegraph Road, would require city council approval because it would be 110 feet taller than the city’s regulations allow.
Residents have been speaking out against the tower at recent planning commision meetings. At one August meeting, 18 Arnold residents opposed the tower, saying they feared it would be dangerous in powerful tornadoes, reduce property values and expose them to cancer-causing radiation.
"If the tower falls it has a possibility of hitting the gasoline (pipeline). When it blows, it will be a disaster," said James Geisler according to the Aug. 28 meeting minutes.
The tower would be approximately 100 feet from CenterPoint Energy's buried pipeline, however they do not see any problems with the location according to city officials.
At the same time, first responders say the city may be powerless to stop the project because federal law requires the county to upgrade its communications system — a requirement that sticks in the craw of some city council members.
The controversy came up at a recent city council work session where first responders were invited to answer questions about the proposed radio and microwave communication tower, which needs a conditional use permit because of its height. Jefferson County 911 Dispatch has requested the permit. The city set a second public hearing on the matter for Oct. 18.
City staff OK’ed the project, but the city’s planning commission denied it. Now it’s up to the council, which can override the planning commission. The council will vote on the tower after the October public hearing.
The communications tower would provide crystal clear service for any police, sheriff, fire or ambulance crew operating in the Arnold area, according to Jefferson County 911. Officials said there are several known dead spots in the current system where radios do not work and that sometimes first responders need to go back to their vehicles to access more powerful radios.
Chief Robert Shockey said that Arnold police would use the new equipment but still employ their own local dispatchers who have other duties beyond answering 911 calls in the city.
The tower in question would be part of a grid of 18 linked towers that would provide high tech communication services across Jefferson County. The improved system would also give emergency personnel in Jefferson County the ability to directly contact services in neighboring counties in the event of a major disaster.
Jefferson County 911 has been collecting a half-cent sales tax since 2009 to fund the new system, which replaced a 15 percent surcharge on landlines collected since the 90s.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Michelle Hohmeier questioned the need for the tower in first place and asked if the system would work without a tower in Arnold or if they could continue to operate with their old equipment. She also voiced concerns that the federal government was telling their city what to do.
“Sometimes you have to make a stand. They don’t have the authority to tell us what to do,” she said.
Shockey said if the city does not comply with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) they would lose their radio license and would be unable to use any kind of radio service. Williams said the time to opt out of the system was in 1992 when the dispatch service was first organized.
Williams also said that although the system is built with many redundancies and could temporarily operate if one tower malfunctioned, it would greatly hamper the coverage area and the quality if they attempt to operate without a tower in Arnold.
Mary Holden, Arnold’s Community Planning Director, said the tower is mandated by Homeland Security and the FCC, which is requiring emergency services around the country to shift to a “narrowband” mode of communication.
The full planning meeting packet is attached here.