Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moving into the doldrums

The June meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors was held on Monday, the 13th. It was sparsely attended perhaps due to the time change or simply because the weather was just too nice to be indoors.
County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson reported on the economic development strategic plan kick-off. A report on the findings and recommendations are expected in late summer.

Major Don Bewkes of the Goochland Sheriff’s Office reported that the county is beset by a rash of thefts of large batteries from heavy equipment. Bewkes said that the high price of lead seems to be driving these crimes. So far there are no leads, but anyone with information about these thefts is urged to call 556-5349.

County Attorney Normal Sales outlined changes in laws resulting from actions made by the Virginia General Assembly. Some of these will require amendment of county ordinances and will be part of the July 5 board agenda. Others are automatic. For the complete list go to the county website and open the board information packet for June 13.

The supervisors spent a great deal of time discussing the merits of accepting a donation by Hoffman Communications of the tower and broadcasting equipment of WZEZ radio to Goochland County Public Schools. The estimated annual cost of operating the tower is $65,067. Moving the existing building owned by the county to house tower equipment will cost $260,000, equipment replacement will cost $66,000. That does not include the cost of relicensing existing first responder frequencies, which are located on the existing tower.

This tower was built after Hoffman Communications applied for and received a conditional use permit in 2006. Proffers included the company’s intention to seek a wireless broadband internet provider to locate on the tower, which is 495 feet tall and located just south of Rt. 250 near Gum Spring. Although a wireless broadband internet provider was found following a lengthy search, that company was unable to secure needed financing in the wake of the economic meltdown three years ago.

In the meantime, the tower became an integral part of the county’s emergency communication system. WZEZ entertained many local listeners and broadcast Goochland High School football games. Indeed, when the Bulldogs were in the state championship, thanks to an internet simulcast by WZEZ, fans are far away as Iraq reported following the game in real time. It is also the source of the AM 1610 frequency currently used to broadcast emergency information.

The proposal seems to indicate that sports broadcasts could continue and increase but would be operated by the schools.

Bill Cleveland, county director of information technology, pointed out that a significant portion of the county’s emergency communication infrastructure is already mounted on the tower and would need to be moved. This would also incur expense and an alternate site has not been identified.

In addition to the tower, Hoffman Communications is prepared to donate all of the broadcast and studio equipment, which would be used by the schools to augment its broadcast journalism program. The donation also includes payment of the salary of the station manager for a one year period to help the school system assimilate the facility.

School superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood said that there would be no additional cost to the school system to assimilate the equipment and broadcast capabilities. She had no information about the cost of physically moving the equipment from its current location in Chester to Goochland. The county would assume regulatory responsibilities including necessary FCC filings to maintain the broadcast license.

Cleveland said that having a locally operated radio station would be very useful to disseminate vital information in times of emergency. He cited the difficulty that the county had in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel getting the word out to Goochland residents about the availability of ice, bottled water and emergency shelters. During that time, Richmond broadcast media ignored repeated requests from the county to broadcast public service messages for Goochland. He also said that this broadcast capability could offset the decline in readership of local newspapers to provide an additional resource for getting public information to residents.

District 4 supervisor Rudy Butler argued that the cost of operating the tower, which includes an escalating lease agreement on the tower site, is too high. He contended that the county would be better off in the long run buying land and building its own radio tower but did not present any figures to support his argument.

Ned Creasey District 3 said that he would like to see a business plan for the continued use of the broadcast facility. His fellow supervisors agreed and more detailed information about future operations will be presented at the July board meeting.

Local amateur radio operators sometimes called “Ham radio operators” who were honored for their service and accomplishments at the evening session, also plan to locate some equipment on the existing tower.

Goochland is blessed to have one of the best organized ham radio groups in the country, if not the world, thanks to Ralph Fetty. Working closely with the Sheriff’s Office, Fire-Rescue and county emergency management, Fetty was the guiding force that organized a rapid response system of local Ham operators.

While we think of them keeping lines of communication open in disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they’re always ready to help.
A few weeks ago when Goochland emergency communications went down, our Hams stepped in and kept things running, including emergency dispatch, until the normal system was back in operation. These unsung heroes are always there; ready to help at a moment’s notice.

Goochland’s amateur radio operators will hold their annual field day at the Courthouse Company 5 fire-rescue station on Fairground Road on Saturday, June 25. This is a great opportunity to learn more about amateur radio.

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