Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
The Macon County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing July 9 on the construction of a proposed 175-foot telecommunications tower by Verizon Wireless at 575 CR Cabe Road. Concerned property owners voiced their worries about the potential blight to their mountain views, decrease in property values and marginal or nonexistent gains from another tower that may go unused.
“It is a ridiculous structure given the proximity of the homes,” said Geoffrey Studds, a former NASA Kennedy Space Center technician who acknowledged the potential economic development benefits but made an argument for locating the tower elsewhere in the valley. He further added, “We’re ruining the landscape if we don’t take height into consideration.”
In a letter submitted to the commissioners, another citizen who would be affected, Elizabeth Diane Dodge, said the tower would ruin her “million-dollar view” and she feared the effects of radiation.
Verizon contracted zoning specialist James LaPann of Lancaster, Penn.-based Falk & Foster to speak on behalf of the company’s permit request. LaPann dutifully spent an hour unable to definitively answer any of the commissioners’ questions except to dismiss any safety concerns, while continuing to volunteer information that was not requested.
“This information should be in the ordinance so that you can address them at the public hearing,” a frustrated Commissioner Paul Higdon informed LaPann after the Verizon representative concluded another long-winded monologue.
Other commissioners praised LaPann for his willingness to go back to Verizon and seek answers to a host of questions including:
• Would Verizon be willing to take the tower down if it becomes a “dead tower,” or goes out of use?
• Does Verizon need the full 175 feet?
• Would the tower be used to enhance high-speed Internet?
• Would Verizon be willing to camouflage the tower, such as disguising it as a pine tree?
• Can Verizon construct a tower in another area of the valley that is less obstructive to homeowners, or use an existing dead television tower?
• How many residents would benefit from the new construction and what is the range that the tower will have?
County attorney Chester Jones clarified that North Carolina state law does not require telecommunications companies to provide proprietary data such as the number of customers, quality of service, or potential current or future use. Such information can only be provided on a voluntary basis. Furthermore, commissioners are not permitted to further seek information about either side of the debate outside of the public hearing.
Chairman Jim Tate tipped his hand at the end of the debate when he reflected on the towers he sees on a daily basis in Highlands. “I don’t think the camouflage helps. They just look awful to me.”
The public hearing was recessed until Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 6 p.m., the commissioners’ next regularly scheduled meeting.
LBJ Job Corps to stay open
The 120 students and 55 staff members at the Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps Center on Wayah Road in Franklin narrowly avoided closure in recent weeks when Congress reversed a decision by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that would have closed the local center and eight others. The remaining 25 centers nationwide were slated to transfer to private contractors under management of the Labor Department.
Perdue argued in a May letter to the Department of Labor that the centers did not support the “core mission” of the U.S. Forest Service, despite their training of first responders to respond to natural disasters, to work on rural infrastructure projects and to maintain national forests.
“I need to say thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you again,” center director Arthur Phalo told the commissioners when he reached the podium. “About 45 days ago the center was about to close down.”
Phalo’s staff had been preparing a thick binder of programs over 50 years to demonstrate how the LBJ Job Corps had helped underprivileged youth get specialized skills and land full-time work in jobs like fire-fighting.
“We have to be able to show the activities in the community,” Phalo acknowledged, explaining a renewed focus to streamline costs and underscore the benefits to the county. The center director, who has served in the position for nine years, listed a $300,000 grant in 2016 and a current $50,000 grant to expand fiberoptics as examples of funds that provide community benefits beyond the rustic center’s campus.
“It was just a bad decision that got corrected,” Commissioner Ronnie Beale said of the Secretary of Agriculture’s proposal to close the center.
Southwestern Commission Executive Director Sarah Thompson also took her turn defending her organization’s value to the community. The Southwestern Commission, which is made up of North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties and 17 towns, uses local dues and federal grants for programs to help elderly individuals stay in their homes longer, support workforce innovation, community and economic development and regional transportation.
The Mountain West Partnership revolving loan program, which offers loans to small businesses, the NCWorks Career Centers, which train out-of-school youth to get the credentials they need to qualify for employment; and Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to homebound seniors, are some of the programs Thompson highlighted. Macon County pays approximately $23,000 in dues for the programs, while the commission operates on a $6 million budget.
A truck, a plaque, and a dog park
Otto Fire Chief Terry Rholetter was given the go-ahead by commissioners to apply for a $404,238 loan to acquire a 2019 HME Ahrens-Fox custom fire pumper truck with 1,500 gallons per minute pumping capacity. The new truck will replace a 1993 Dixie truck that was no longer running efficiently.
The new truck will have a 380 hp motor, an upgrade from the Dixie’s 230 hp motor. Chief Rholetter justified paying an additional $10,000-$15,000 for the custom truck, arguing it was only a marginal increase for specifications tailored to his community’s needs.
Commissioners saw mockups of a new Women’s History Trail plaque to be added to the Macon County Courthouse honoring Elinor “Nellie” Cleveland West Cook, a Highlands and Franklin restaurant owner and postmaster in the mid-20th century who at age 67 became the first woman from Macon County to be elected to the North Carolina House.
Before Tate could pound the gavel to close the meeting for the evening, an older couple patiently waiting in the third-row gallery shouted their desire to see shovels in the ground to start preparing the county’s new $111k dog park.
“Things will get started soon,” County Manager Derek Roland assured the concerned citizens. Roland said the contract bidding process was complete and the winning bidder was being notified. He expected the contractor to start digging “within the next month.”
Meanwhile, dogs may continue to use the county’s current park located along the Little Tennessee Greenway at Wesley’s Park for relief and recreation.