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July 8, 2003

The Battle For Lamb's Knoll

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The history of the Middletown Valley is filled with skirmishes and battles that defined the Civil War era. We all know the stories of the Battles of Crampton's, Turner's, and Fox's Gaps.

Today, along the same ridgeline, another battle is being fought.

Lamb's Knoll is the hill that towers over the Valley between Middletown and Burkittsville. The summit is easily viewed from Pleasant Valley in southern Washington County to above Myersville in Frederick County.

Lamb's Knoll is a part the newly minted South Mountain Battlefield State Park, so designated through the hard work of former Delegate Louise Snodgrass, the Central Maryland Heritage League, and the South Mountain Historical Society.

In addition to playing a part in the seminal battles that led up to the clash on the fields of Antietam, Lamb's Knoll has become a battleground over the use of technology, specifically radio communications.

Lamb's Knoll plays host to a variety of communication systems, owned by an alphabet soup list of tenants. Every level of government has some type of communications gear on top of Lamb's Knoll (including some stuff run by intense-looking guys with guns).

While I suspect that there are folks who would have always advocated the elimination of the aesthetic blight of the existing equipment, the fact remains that a fire tower sits atop the knoll. Placed on the fire tower structure are several antennae, serving a variety of public safety uses for Washington County and Western Maryland. If you take a drive on either MD 17 or MD 67, you'll see the tower on the ridge.

The fire tower structure is badly in need of replacement. A competent, qualified engineer has opined that the tower may not need to be taken down, as it stands a very good chance of allowing gravity and time to handle the job.

Given the fact that communications supported by this deteriorating structure are important to emergency services, the State Department of Management and Budget (charged with overseeing this function), and the Department of Natural Resources (charged with protecting the park), put their heads together to come up with some solutions.

As is almost always the case, the people who work on these issues at the state level are focused on the goal, in this case ensuring that emergency communications are uninterrupted.

Locally, some people have an entirely different view. Lamb's Knoll is no exception. Paul Rosa, director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, has developed a history of engaging in well-publicized battles over land development and preservation in the tri-state region.

Mr. Rosa has developed professional expertise in communications technology and has been involved in several cellular industry issues. He has also led a fight to preserve land around the Harper's Ferry area, and has some significant successes to back up his words.

I first met him when he was marketing his ability to write cell tower ordinances for local governments when I worked for the City of Brunswick. I can attest to the fact that he is passionate, well researched (in support of his perspective) and prepared for the fights he gets involved in.

Another player in this drama is Paul Gilligan, the former mayor of Burkittsville (and a former political foe). Paul has been involved in land preservation in the Burkittsville area for many years. He has demonstrated success in acquiring preservation easements on farms in that area, and he is an active member of both the Mid-Maryland Land Trust Association and the South Mountain Historical organization.

With the background set, now the lead starts to fly. Messrs. Rosa and Gilligan, along with other preservation-minded folk, get wind of the state plan to replace the fire tower with a much taller, thinner radio tower on the ridgeline.

The state folks charged with maintaining emergency communications hold public hearings. Most "regular" folks fail to show up (American Idol was on, I guess), but the two Pauls, along with local residents and preservationists, turned out to question the state and county officials judgment.

Mr. Rosa stands firm in his belief that a larger tower will forever blight the historic landscape. He suggests that there are other solutions, from a lower height network of telephone pole antennae to facilities located in the State of Virginia that could play host. The state officials looking at this have concluded that the least impacting - and most effective - solution is to build the single, larger replacement tower atop Lamb's Knoll.

Mr. Rosa, having dealt in these matters before, took matters a step further. He contacted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and lobbied for an Environmental Assessment (EA), a formal process that would require the state to justify their site selection.

The FCC accepted Mr. Rosa's findings, and has demanded the state produce the EA. In an unprecedented move, the state has rejected the FCC directive, citing several areas where the FCC is not following their own procedures. The state also questions the very authority under which the FCC has acted. The state includes the findings of Rodney Little, the State Historic Preservation Officer, that there is no impact on historic sites in their response to the FCC.

In a letter to the FCC, Ellis Kitchen, the Chief Information Officer for the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, indicates that planning for the replacement of the fire tower with a new tower will continue during the EA, and further states that in the event the engineer's prediction of the fire tower collapse is realized, the state will construct a new tower on an emergency basis (without regard to federal approval).

The issues here are not as simple as they might first appear. The antennae located on the current fire tower are a critical component of the backbone of state emergency communications for everything west of Frederick County.

Washington County emergency services personnel are frequently without radio service when they travel in the southeastern portion of their county. Department of Natural Resources rangers and National Park Service personnel are without radio communications at several points on the C&O Canal and along the Appalachian Trail.

That being said, Lamb's Knoll is an important component of the skyline as viewed in both Frederick and Washington counties. You can see Lamb's Knoll at several points on the Antietam battlefield. The argument that millions of dollars of taxpayer contributions have gone into preserving farmland within the shadow of Lamb's Knoll has merit.

The 2003 Battle of Lamb's Knoll pits preservationists against technologists, emergency communications against visual intrusion, local residents against local government, and state agencies against the FCC.

Given that both Washington County Hospital and Frederick Memorial are frequently on Code Yellow (limiting ER admissions), we may need to clear out space in the Museum of Civil War Medicine to treat the casualties of this battle.

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