RAY BROOK - Essex County's expansive public safety communications project breezed through Thursday's state Adirondack Park Agency meeting with few questions asked and no significant concerns raised by agency commissioners.
The project was unanimously approved by the APA Regulatory Programs Committee in the morning; then the full board signed off on it Thursday, Dc. 13.
"It truly is a great gift for this region to be able to say this communications network will be going into place in terms of protecting lives and responding to emergencies in this region," agency Executive Director Terry Martino said. "It's something that's certainly needed and very significant."
Shared by Essex County, state police and New York State Electric and Gas, the radio and microwave network involves the installation of telecommunications infrastructure at 14 sites in 12 towns around the Park, including private and state land. New radio towers will be built on Belfry Mountain in Moriah and Saddle Hill in Lewis, while existing towers will be replaced on Mount Morris in Tupper Lake and Wells Hill in Lewis. Dozens of new microwave dishes, whip antennas and other equipment will be co-located on existing towers and buildings.
The new system is designed to replace a 1950s-era communications network that only covers 60 percent of the county, has frequent interference problems and is difficult to maintain. The new system will provide 95 percent coverage and let the county 911 center in Lewis dispatch all the fire, police, ambulance and highway departments in the county - and let these agencies communicate with each other. The network has three components: land mobile radio, which involves communications to vehicles and people on the ground, a pager system, and a microwave system that relays large volumes of data within the network.
APA Environmental Programs Specialist Leigh Walrath showed commissioners a series of photo simulations of the new towers and other infrastructure. In most cases, Walrath said any visual impacts were minimal.
The new tower on Mount Morris, for example, will be 10 feet lower in height than the existing fire tower on the mountain's summit and is "not going to be readily discernible," Walrath said.
Commissioner Sherman Craig asked Walrath if he felt any of the towers should have been simulated pine trees.
"I don't see any place where a simulated tree tower would have made any difference," Walrath said.
The project includes replacement of the existing, 650-square-foot ski patrol shack on the summit of Little Whiteface Mountain with a new, 34-foot-tall, 1,380-square-foot building that will have three attached decks. A microwave dish will be housed inside a rooftop cupola that's designed to look like a clock.
Walrath said the agency had concerns about construction associated with the project on Whiteface, Gore, Blue Mountain and Mount Morris impacting the Bicknell's thrush, a rare migratory songbird that breeds and nests at high elevations like these. However, he said, there's no tree clearing proposed on any of the four mountains, and construction would be limited during the bird's breeding and nesting times.
Although it's a very complicated project, APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich noted that the agency had received no public comment on it. She later called it "a model we may see emulated in other places.
"In my nine years, I've never seen such a complicated project come before this board that was not contentious, that was not divisive," Ulrich said. "What you have done is remarkable, and it's groundbreaking, as far as I'm concerned, in the model of partnering, the work that's taken place and the excellent design."
Charles White, state police director of communications, attributed the lack of controversy to a "balanced approach.
"We're utilizing existing structures. We're not building a lot," White told the News. "We were very sensitive to the tower proliferation concerns and environmental impacts. At the same time, through the partnership, we realized we all had pieces and parts that collectively would be able to put one solid system together. That made sense from a financial, operational and environmental and aesthetic standpoint."
Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish thanked the agency, and specifically Walrath, for its assistance.
"It's been a long process over two years," Jaquish said. "I think public safety communications in the North Country has taken a big step forward from what we have right now."
The project will cost $16 million, to be split up among the three partners. Essex County's share is roughly $10 million. The state police share is $1.8 million.
Jaquish told the News earlier this week that he hopes construction can begin in the spring so the new system can potentially go online in the fall of next year.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@