BBVFC gets 60-foot tower approved

After literally years of wrangling with the Town of Bethany Beach, the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company got the go-ahead last week for its new communications tower.

The 60-foot structure is just half the size of the one the BBVFC originally requested and the
same size as the existing antenna pole, but a deal with the town over the spring led to a compromise solution that may satisfy most involved in the case.

That solution, approved unanimously by the Board of Adjustments on July 6, involves the 60-foot tower at the Bethany Beach fire hall location, a repeater on a county emergency communications tower outside the town and the town’s willingness to pay for the cost of that repeater.

In return, the fire company will get what they believe should be an adequate signal — if not quite what they wanted — and the town will have a tower half the height of that in the original request, as well as the likely retirement of the audible emergency siren the BBVFC still uses as a backup notification source for its members.

It was a compromise on both sides, as fire company officials were quick to emphasize.

“To meet our goal of service in a time of emergency, we’re making a sacrifice. It was a step we had to take,” BBFVC President Bob Webster told the Board of Adjustments on July 6.

The BBVFC originally brought forward the request for a 120-foot tower, crowned with a 5-foot antenna, in September of 2004. The request came as part of a package of five variance requests related to the new fire hall expansion, which was completed and dedicated earlier this year.

Four of those five variances were granted by the three-member Board of Adjustments (BoA), but the fifth request — a tower to replace the existing 60-foot telephone pole used to hold the 5-foot antenna — caused opposition based on its proposed height and concerns for safety as well as aesthetics.

Questions and concerns

The BoA refused to grant outright permission for the tower in 2004, instead asking that the BBVFC satisfy four areas of inquiry:

(1) A justification of the requested 125-foot total height by an electrical communications engineer as the minimum required for the company’s needs to communicate;

(2) Drawings of the proposed tower, to give the board members an idea of the aesthetic impact;

(3) Information on what, if any, alternative sites had been considered; and

(4) A declaration as to whether any additional commercial communications devices would be placed on the tower (i.e. cell-phone communications devices owned or leased by Sprint, Verizon, etc.).

The September 2004 hearing had included testimony as to the first issue — minimum required height — but had suggested a philosophy of “higher is better” with the company faced with an ocean border that lets their radio signals fall off rather than get reinforced. Thus, the signal is currently often too spotty to carry to fire company members far and wide information on ongoing emergency needs.

The requested report was something altogether different, and the company was facing the difficulty of paying for the extensive study on top of equipment and fire-hall construction costs until the town offered to help pay for it.

The study was finally completed in May of 2005 and, in addition to considering the needed height of the tower, also looked at some often-suggested alternative locations, including the Sea Colony high-rises, town water tower and a commercial facility at the edge of the town.

Where else to put the tower

The conclusion of the report: the height needs were that extreme, and none of the alternatives were truly appropriate — largely due to the distance from the station and the maintenance and access requirements they would add to the firefighters’ normal routine. Attorney Dennis Schraeder, appearing for the BBVFC, also noted that the willingness to provide access and cost of access leases at those locations hadn’t been investigated yet.

Webster said he was particularly concerned with circumstances that would mean maintenance work high atop a building or water tower. His firefighters were trained and experienced at climbing communications towers of the proposed design, he said, but not as well equipped to deal with other types of tall structures.

And the height was needed, according to the engineer who performed the study. The signal would need to traverse groups of tall trees to reach through the fire district’s long north-south expanse, despite the hindrance of the water. It was either 125 feet of tower and antenna, or, as the alternative solution eventually provided, 60 feet of tower broadcasting to a repeater on the 320-foot county tower at the edge of town.

Fire company officials opposed the idea of a repeater on principle, citing the fact that a repeater facility would mean one more facility to maintain or ensure maintenance thereof, and that one off-site from their home base. But faced with the idea that they might be stuck with the status quo, they entertained discussions of compromise with town officials.

And in the course of negotiations with the town, fire officials inquired as to the availability of space on the county tower. They secured a spot at 180 feet in the air — the highest available, and capable of being reached by a 60-foot tower at the Bethany Beach location, it was determined.

Parrett said he believed the new arrangement would result in a signal that would actually travel beyond the borders of the fire district. How far, he couldn’t say, but it would do the job the BBVFC needed, in combination with a 60-foot tower: “180 was what was available,” he told the board. “The county said it would work.”

Indeed, BoA Chairman Bob Parsons said his own experience as an Army signal officer suggested the revised 60-foot tower height was a “very reasonable” height requirement to reach the 180-foot-high repeater.

Tower ‘slim down’ suggested

But that shortened 60-foot tower itself became a sticking point for the Town Council and into the July 6 deliberations of the Board of Adjustments.

Though the Town Council had elected not to formally oppose the revised request for the 60-foot tower, Mayor Jack Walsh personally spoke up in opposition to its design, calling it “oil-rig-like” and saying it was too massive and should be “streamlined.”

Since its redesign, the new tower design had euphemistically been described as “chopped off” or as “the bottom half” of the original 120-foot tower, with a 15-foot bottom diameter and construction of the same pyramid-shaped steel structure. Council members, including Walsh, had previously expressed dismay with that size and had suggested scaling down the tower’s width seemed appropriate with the reduction in height.

But other than that objection, and a single letter simply calling the tower “a detriment to the neighborhood,” opposition was sparse July 6.

The main sticking point concerned the needed strength of the tower — designed to survive through a Category 3 hurricane or strong nor’easter (estimated winds of 135 mph) and thus be available during what might be the area’s most likely severe emergency, and hopefully afterward, into a recovery period when firefighters might most be needed.

Indeed, Webster referred to the stormy weather that canceled the town’s fireworks display on the evening of July 4, saying, “Most emergencies we have to deal with happen in the night, like July 4. We lost communications with Sussex at one point on July 4, by radio, for 20 to 25 minutes. If that had happened in an emergency, it would be impossible for us to respond.”

While perception was that the tower was indeed just a “chopped off” version of the original design, Parrett repeatedly assured the board members that the base width presented was required to meet the goal of wind resistance mandated from the start of the design process. Whether it was 120 feet tall or 60, that hadn’t changed, he said.

Walsh persisted in saying it only seemed logical that a narrower base would serve the same purpose on a shorter tower, finally requiring a definitive statement in response to the question from the board: Was the new tower design simply “chopped off”? Was it just a quick take on the old design to meet the wishes of town officials? Had it really been designed to be the minimum size needed to survive a major storm?

Indeed, Parrett and Webster testified, the new drawings depicting the 60-foot tower had been drawn by the same engineer who designed the original plans for the 120-foot structure. He’d charged just as much to do it, Webster lamented mildly, and had come up with the design shown before the board on July 6. Even if it appeared to be the bottom half of something, it was a separate design.

And Parrett reminded board members that the tower alone wasn’t what needed to hold up to the weather — it was also the load of antennas atop the tower.

That satisfied the major objection remaining before the board.

Not a commercial venture

A minor concern remaining was that of commercial use. Without guaranteeing specifically that the company would never, ever provide space for commercial communications devices — something that could potentially provide income for the volunteer company — both Parrett and Webster were quick to assure the board members that that concept was not part of the intent of the fire company.

In fact, Webster said, the company had repeatedly ignored the regular requests it receives from commercial communications companies who proposed to build a tower at the fire hall site — a tower they would use jointly with the BBVFC. And the only offer the fire company had made for use of any future tower built by the BBFVC was to the town, for use of police and other municipal agencies, Webster said.

The two fire officials said it wasn’t just a matter of choosing not to host commercial devices on the tower. Rather, they were concerned whether there would be enough space for additional devices and whether those devices, if added, would ever interfere with the BBVFC’s own communications facilities. It was a risk they would never take, both officials said.

And Parsons took them up on that, suggesting any approval by the BoA include the term that only municipal use join that of the fire company on the tower.

The new tower will not just house the antenna that currently tops the 60-foot pole behind the fire house, however. Communications antennas that current sit atop the fire hall roof will also eventually be moved to the tower.

It will make for a one-stop maintenance task for the firefighters and maximize the reach of communications not just with the repeater (and thus the county Emergency Operations Center and individual BBFVC firefighters) but also with individual devices operated by other area emergency services, such as the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company, which often assists the BBVFC.

Parrett noted that the design is self-supporting, requiring no guy wires that would further expand the overall size of the base or pose additional safety hazards. He said the company would have to rely on county maintenance workers to ensure the repeater and its tower were kept in good order.

If the new system proves to be reliable, the BBFVC could retire the existing audible emergency siren it uses as a backup notification for its members. That siren has proven necessary in recent years as firefighters’ radios have turned out to be less than reliable in receiving signals from the Bethany Beach station.

After receiving the board’s approval, Webster said the BBVFC would proceed with construction of the tower as soon as possible. That would happen after the official notice of the BoA decision is received and the usual legal appeal period is concluded. He said the county facilities were already lined up to house the BBVFC’s repeater. “The county guy is calling me twice a day,” he said with a chuckle.

The construction of the new tower will bring to a close what has been a nearly two-year struggle for the company — one that finally netted a compromise that it is hoped will resolve both a safety concern and aesthetic issues for the town and its citizens.