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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, February 3, 2023
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Undercurrents: Communications Tower Above the Islands

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

One evening not long ago, Marshall Bell and his wife watched from their hillside home on St. Thomas as the sun slipped down the sky into the sea, dyeing the ocean a hazy pink and splashing reds and orange across the horizon.

Normally this tranquil scene melts into the first glints of tiny stars that multiply as the night deepens, until they crowd the heavens and compete for space with an incomparable moon.

But this night, twilight turned into a sort of mad disco. Eye-searing flashes of light pulsated through the darkness in rapid succession, ricocheting off the clouds, disorientating the watchers and driving the Bells inside where they did their best to block the light from bouncing off the walls all night long.

They were not under siege by tormentors. Not intentionally, at least.

Like more and more territory residents, the Bells live in the shadow of a communications tower – in their case, in fact, several towers. Bell suspected something had gone wrong with one of them.

So when dawn came, he started with what he thought was the most likely culprit and contacted a major communications company renting space on that tower. Through the company, he tracked down the name of the business that actually owns and operates the tower: SBA Communications of Puerto Rico. SBA was immediately responsive and resolved the problem in a day.

The tower in question sits slightly below the Mountain Top tourist attraction, right next to a small condominium complex and in the line of sight of numerous single-family homes. In the daylight, two white lights flash continually from the tower, signaling its presence to air traffic and wildlife, but imperceptible to anyone not looking directly at it. At night, in the dark, the white lights are automatically replaced by red ones, so that again, in the darkness, they will emit the necessary signal but remain undetected by the casual observer.

As explained by Juan Narrero, the SBA regional field representative, what happened one night early this month is that the tower’s sensor malfunctioned. At dusk, it failed to make the switch from white lights to red lights, with the result that the night illumination was many times brighter than normal and had a piercing effect.

The problem was a quick fix and Bell said he was pleased with the response and the outcome.

But the incident underscores a new fact of life. The Virgin Islands landscape has changed in the past 20 years as communications towers have sprung up across the territory. And what began as a novelty is now just part of the scene.

Public opposition convinced the government to put a moratorium on new construction of towers in 2009. Originally the ban was for six months, but it stretched to more than three years as the Department of Planning and Natural Resources revised the rules and regulations governing towers.

Among the changes in the Wireless Facility and Wireless Support Structure Rules and Regulations which were signed into law Dec. 23, 2011, is the requirement of a larger setback and of shorter towers. No new tower may be higher than 199 feet and the minimum distance between a tower and the property line is the height of the tower. Existing towers are grandfathered in at their original heights and setbacks, but they may not be significantly altered without being permitted under the new regulations.

The regulations also set guidelines for the intensity of glare from lighting, require maintenance plans and allow the DPNR commissioner to consider whether a tower would impair the “peaceful enjoyment” of neighboring properties.

Little more than a year after the moratorium was lifted, three applications for tower permits have been approved for St. Croix and two have been approved for St. Thomas, said Stuart Smith, director of DPNR’s Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning.

Construction of one of the new St. Croix towers is complete, one has just broken ground and the third has just been approved. On St. Thomas, construction is just starting on one and the other is about 50 percent complete.

None of them are over 60 feet high, Smith said.

“Most of what we’re getting now is (applications) for cell phone coverage,” he said, and those don’t need to be tall. The government is also encouraging construction of towers on top of existing structures, such as homes, rather than as stand-alone features.

Smith said he does not know how many towers already exist in the territory. He referred that question to the Bureau of Information and Technology. But BIT Director Reuben Molloy said he has figures only for those towers that are owned or used by the government, a total of six on St. Croix, six on St. Thomas and one on St. John.

Asked for his estimate of the overall numbers, Maurice Kurg, a pioneer in the field in the territory, rattled off the names of four sites on St. Croix, three of them with at least two towers, another four sites on St. John and a dozen sites on St. Thomas, some with multiple towers. That, he said, probably accounts for about 90 percent of the total. If so, that would mean there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 towers in the territory.

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