Upper Merion Is Lone Holdout to $36 Million Emergency Communications Overhaul, Montgomery County Officials Say

Within months, construction of 29 towers that help form Montgomery County's $36 million emergency communications overhaul will be complete.

But there's a problem. The upgraded dispatch system requires 30 towers to fully cover the county.

The lone snag is in Upper Merion, where township supervisors and county officials have butted heads for more than two years about construction of a 180-foot tower.

The upgraded system would significantly improve the ability of county dispatchers to communicate with emergency personnel like firefighters and police.

"More towers are needed to increase coverage and increased capacity (number of channels) is needed because the system gets bogged by the volume of use during major events," according to a county report on the project.

After hearing about the holdup, which First Assistant County Solicitor Josh Stein said has added $300,000 to the project, County Commissioner Josh Shapiro said Thursday, "This is unbelievable. This seems like a relatively simple issue."

Stein and other county officials suggested Upper Merion's supervisors purposefully changed local zoning code to prevent the county from installing a tower on a property along Hughes Road.

The location, Stein said, in fact already has a radio tower. It is 90 feet in height, according to Upper Merion.

Stein said in addition to the zoning code change, Upper Merion officials have also cited the complaints of eight families who live near the proposed tower.

"I wish I knew this when I approved the resolution earlier [in the meeting] that extended a trail through Upper Merion," Shapiro said. He was referring to the commissioners' approval to purchase an easement for the Chester Valley Trail expansion.

Without the 30th tower, parts of Upper Merion, Bridgeport, West Conshohocken and Lower Merion could have spotty coverage within the emergency dispatch system, Stein said.

"They're having a negative impact on their surrounding communities," Shapiro said of Upper Merion.

Upper Merion supervisors did not respond to emails, but township Manager David Kraynik told NBC10.com that the township has not changed any zoning in that area of Hughes Road -- disputing the county's account.

And he said the county, like anyone else seeking a variance, must go before Upper Merion's zoning board.

"All we're asking is go before the zoning board," Kraynik said. "Any property has to go before the zoning board for a variance. That's our position and that's consistently been our position with the county."

Stein said the county solicitor's office will send a letter to Upper Merion supervisors requesting that they reconsider the merits of the tower and sign off on its construction.

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