The tower in question is slated for the Rainbow Springs area of the county, just north of U.S. 64 and a little more than a mile west of the Appalachian Trail. Site work has already begun and should be completed in a matter of months.
Once complete — at 170 feet tall atop a knoll — the tower will likely be visible along five miles or so of the national scenic trail and from Silers Bald, a popular outlook accessible via the AT.
“Any towers that stick up are unnatural looking,” said Morgan Sommerville, southern regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The sight of a communications tower can disrupt the landscape and act as a stark reminder to the backpacker or day hiker trying to escape into the woods that civilization is not far.
Sommerville acknowledged that there was no way to stop the tide of telecommunication towers cropping up across the mountain landscape, but what troubles him is the lack of outreach by local governments when it comes to new towers. Macon County commissioners approved the Rainbow Springs tower in July, but the ATC and local hiking clubs didn’t catch wind of the development until after the fact.
“We’d like to know about it and have an opportunity to comment,” Sommerville said.
The protocol of using local newspapers and local government websites to advertise proposed telecommunications towers poses a problem for the ATC. The winding trail traverses more than 2,000 miles of territory and countless local jurisdictions, making it hard to keep tabs on everything that might affect the trail.
Sommerville was hoping commissioners, especially those governing a county like Macon with a little less than 50 miles of the trail, would seek his input. The county seat, Franklin, is also an official Appalachian Trail Community, a designation the ATC gives to trail towns.
“A lot of times these notices are very obscure in a local newspaper at some time,” Sommerville said. “It’s pretty easy to miss.”
A similar situation recently took place in Tennessee, north of the AT at Sams Gap, where a tower was approved and constructed without input form the ATC.
“Again we heard about it after the fact,” Sommerville said.
In Macon County, the ATC had Bill Van Horn, a member of the Nantahala Hiking Club, speak to the commissioners in August, a month after they had unanimously approved the tower. He asked them to consider better notification in the future for organizations like the ATC, which has its regional headquarters in Asheville. He also urged commissioners to consider broadening the notification guidelines for properties surrounding towers.
The Macon County Telecommunications ordinance requires notification by mail of all property owners adjacent to the site and within a quarter-mile radius. Considering the tower can be viewed beyond a quarter-mile, expanding that requirement might be a good policy.
Sommerville said his organization wants to be privy to major happenings within four miles of the trail. In addition to the AT, the Nantahala National Forest lies about a half-mile from where the new tower will be erected.
Sommerville and other trail advocates aren’t necessarily gunning to stop construction of a new tower, but to make sure its owners takes steps to reduce its visual impact.
“It isn’t a rare occurrence to see a tower along the trail,” Sommerville said. “We don’t oppose new cell towers, but we urge cell phone companies to be respectful of neighbors — and they can usually do that without great loss of coverage.”
What Sommerville fears the most is a brilliant strobe light perched on top a massive tower in plain sight from the trail. Simple measures like setting the tower down off the ridge top, no or subtle red lighting, and a non-illustrative finish can make a world of difference, he said.
While the Rainbow Springs tower plans do not call for any lighting, according to County Planning Director Matt Mason, it will be substantial in height.
Standing 170 feet tall the tower will be just five feet shorter than the maximum height allowed by Macon County’s regulations.
Mason also downplayed the visual impact of the tower. By the ATC’s predictions, the top 80 feet of the tower will be the most visible to hikers, although vegetation will block the line of sight most of the year.
“Looking at their map and their data, it could be visible,” Mason said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be the impact that they think it is.”
The tower is being built by Pegasus Tower for use by AT&T and other carriers. It is also available for the county to expand its emergency radio communications, if need be.
County Commissioner Ron Haven said county personnel have difficulty communicating in Rainbow Springs and residents can’t call on their mobile phones. Haven’s own wife had an unfortunate incident in which her car broke down near Rainbow Springs and she had to hike two miles to get cell phone reception.
“I do know there is a definite need for a tower for safety purposes,” he said.
Haven, who is also a fan of the AT and operates a shuttle service and a motel for hikers, said he was unaware of the full extent of the tower’s visibility from the trail when he approved it. A map was created by the ATC showing its line of sight after the vote was already taken.
Nevertheless, he said the tower will benefit hikers too in regards to safety. Being able to phone for help may be a small tradeoff for sacrificing a bit of the view. Last year, a hiker was able to get just enough cell phone coverage to call 911 after being trapped in a snowstorm on a section of the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That phone call probably saved his life.
“I love the Appalachian Trail, but I want to see the very best for safety too,” Haven said. “I do know hikers who have struggled and been hurting bad and didn’t have cell reception.”