Green light or not, site preparation is beginning on the side of Missionary Ridge where a controversial cell tower is proposed at 2897 East Main St. Fencing is erected, signs posted and earth movers have started clearing a path up to the woods where the tower would be located.
"We're doing a few things out there," said Matt Bates, senior vice president of development and operations for Wireless Properties, LLC. "We feel pretty strongly that we've done everything correctly and legally. We're planning on building a tower."
At the same time, Wireless President Larry Wells says his attorneys are preparing to file a lawsuit for libel against the Missionary Ridge Neighborhood Association, which has been vocal in its opposition.
"It's not good to file documents and not tell the truth. When you cause damage to a person's career, there's a price to pay. I'm not going to sit by and let them destroy what has taken me decades to build," he said.
"They'd better start buying Georgia or Tennessee lottery tickets, because they're going to need the money."
Neither Wireless nor MRNA would supply the document he referred to.
The Federal Communications Commission has not yet approved the tower; however, its staff recommended upholding an initial decision by the Tennessee Historical Commission, thus rejecting a later change of mind that came after a THC staff member took a second look and determined that the tower could have a detrimental impact on the viewshed of Bragg Reservation, a noted Civil War site in Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to MRNA, the project has drawn opposition from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Friends of the Park, Cornerstones and individuals who say that the tower would detract from the historical perspective that visitors can gain in looking out from Bragg over the city of Chattanooga and diminish property values of Missionary Ridge residents.
The reservation and its distinctive monuments commemorate the site of a battle which is considered a defining moment in the Civil War, when Union forces stormed the Ridge from the western slope, forced the retreat of the Confederate forces and paved the way for General Sherman's famous "March to the Sea."
Wireless Properties argues that there's a double standard being placed.
"Why aren't they opposing the construction of the condominium development up at Bragg, which will definitely obscure the viewshed to the east?" Mr. Bates asked.
He raised that question in consideration of the direction in which the Confederates retreated and Union armies took. It was a point that Jim Ogden, historian of the Park, did not dispute.
FCC officials say it's "still in the information-gathering process," but they had encouraged Wireless and the Park to try to work something out. Well, apparently it hasn't worked out, because they aren't speaking to each other at this time.
While not having a face-to-face meeting, the two parties exchanged letters, and according to Mr. Bates, his company offered some concessions. While citing "confidentiality" on some issues, Mr. Wells said that one possibility would be to further lower the height of the tower.
"But we haven't heard back with a yes, no or maybe on anything," Mr. Bates said.
Shawn Benge, superintendent of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, said there's a reason for that.
"We've gone to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to see if the case can be re-opened."
Much to the delight of cell tower opponents, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have written letters in support of having the FCC look back into the case and determine whether procedural errors occurred during the federally mandated FCC Section 106 review of Wireless Properties' application.
The ACHP is the primary federal policy advisor to the President, Congress and heads of other federal agencies regarding historic preservation issues.
"If the FCC determines that 106 hadn't been vetted, that would bring more parties to have a seat at the table," Supt. Benge said, referring to Friends of the Park, MRNA and Cornerstones.
One issue that opponents are banking on is that the agency will be sympathetic that the Park Service was in disarray without a permanent Park superintendent at the time of the application process and that the Missionary Ridge Neighborhood Association had not been informed.
"We did what we were required to do," Mr. Bates said. "We filled out all of the necessary forms. We haven't pulled anything over anyone's head."
He said that Wireless Properties actually originally planned to build a 180-foot tower but that the company decided to reduce the height by 30 feet "before they (opponents) even got going."
He said Wireless has always been sensitive to historic properties and has worked in concert with Mr. Ogden on several occasions, including a cell tower site at Chickamauga Battlefield.
"We're trying to be the least obtrusive or invasive and have the best place to put the tower."
He said trial balloons floated in January to show the location and height of the tower was not an accurate demonstration. He said they couldn't get the first balloon inside the trees to duplicate the actual height, because of the density of the trees. The second balloon was located in the middle of the lot and was not indicative of the actual sight line.
"I understand how people reacted negatively when they saw it, but we knew we'd be building it back in the trees. We just couldn't show how it would really be."
Workers at the Main Street site
- Photo2 by Betsy Bramlett