Board to consider fire company tower

The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company has a nice new (and dry) fire hall, a new ladder truck and a new, fortified communications center where members can safely monitor calls in case of a widespread emergency. But they’re still having problems communicating — with their members.

The BBFVC could hear on July 6 whether they’re going to potentially get some help with that problem, at a hearing before the Bethany Beach Board of Adjustments at 10:30 a.m.

The communications problems have their roots in the skinny north-south span of land that the fire company has as its district. Radio signals aren’t reflected back by the bordering ocean and thus reinforced, as they are inland. So, sometimes signals fail and members don’t get notified to head in to help with an emergency.

To try to alleviate those problems, the BBFVC included plans for a 120-foot communications tower (topped by a 5-foot antenna) in their initial plans for the fire hall renovations. Emergency officials championed a blanket “higher is better” philosophy as the best way to cover the company’s extensive north-south territory despite the limitations of being bordered by water.

But the town’s Board of Adjustments rejected that aspect of the plans for the new fire hall, objecting to the height and saying proof of the need for that height hadn’t been sufficient. They also objected to the lack of details about the design of the tower structure itself.

What followed was a series of delays, lasting nearly two years now, as the fire company worked on other elements of the renovation plans and to cement both support for the requested tower height and designs for the tower.

Meanwhile, the town passed new restrictions on communications towers. That move garnered criticism from council and BBVFC member Wayne Fuller, who charged the new legislation was targeted at preventing the proposed BBVFC tower from being allowed. Council Member Lew Killmer, who drafted the legislation, denied that was the case.

In the meantime, negotiations between BBFVC and town officials finally netted a compromise.

The BBVFC altered its request, downsizing the town from 120 feet to 60 — roughly the same height as the existing pole upon which the communications antenna currently sits. Town officials and opponents breathed a sigh of relief.

But in discussing whether they would take an official position on the issue in a new hearing on the proposal, some council members (Fuller the noted exception) said they were less than satisfied with the proposed design of the tower — a triangular, metal structure that hadn’t had its base width narrowed in relation to the reduction in proposed height.

The council members made it clear that they’d prefer to have the width scaled down as well, in addition to requiring extensive safety features designed to keep unauthorized persons from accessing or climbing the tower.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet cautioned the council at that time that the compromise had been a difficult one. He said the BBVFC, if tasked with too many additional requirements, could simply return to their previous proposal instead, with additional supporting information, and take their chances anew with the Board of Adjustments at the upcoming hearing.

He also noted that the company had suggested it would stop using its notification siren if the tower were allowed, since communications via radio signal would be much more reliable and not require the back-up mechanism of the siren to notify members of an emergency. That was also a welcome notion for the council — and again one that might not come to pass if the town rejects the new tower.

The council members stopped short of giving a thumbs-down to the new tower proposal at that time, but again voiced their hopes that changes would be made — perhaps at the request of the Board of Adjustments members.

Whether those wishes have been heard, by anyone, will be made clear on Thursday, July 6, when the Board convenes to again hear arguments on the case and possibly render a verdict to allow or again reject the BBFVC’s request for the tower.