Radio transmission tower project granted waiver by county commissioners

Travis Bilger, student general manager at campus radio station 90.5 WWCU-FM, prepares for a broadcast from studios in WCU’s Old Student Union Building. The university is considering a proposal to build a transmission tower to broadcast the station’s signal at a new frequency of 95.3 FM.

Western Carolina University’s proposal to build a transmission tower to broadcast the signal from the campus radio station at the 95.3 FM frequency cleared a major hurdle Monday (Nov. 27) when the Jackson County Board of Commissioners granted the university a waiver in regards to some of the provisions of the county’s Wireless Communications Ordinance.

The commissioner’s vote releasing the university from seven provisions of the ordinance makes it theoretically possible for WCU to meet a May 28, 2018, deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission for getting the new frequency on the air, said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. University officials are hoping to construct the tower on university-owned land on Brown Mountain and to offer the opportunity for other uses on the tower that would benefit the surrounding area.

WCU received a permit from the FCC in 2015 to start broadcasting campus radio at a frequency of 95.3 FM. The station’s signal at the new frequency would be more than five times stronger than the signal of the current 90.5, which has been the frequency of WWCU-FM since 1977, and, combined with an improved tower location, would increase the radio station’s broadcast range and potential audience by 70 percent. However, when university officials started looking into the expenses involved in erecting a new radio transmission tower, projected at more than $500,000, they began to reconsider the viability of the project, Byers said.

The situation changed recently when representatives of the Jackson County Department of Emergency Management and WLOS-TV in Asheville contacted the university to discuss how locating their broadcast equipment on the new tower could eliminate “dark spots” in their communication coverage. Bringing in those entities as partners, and possibly others such as cell phone and WiFi providers, makes the project more appealing, Byers said.

Jackson County commissioners approved the waiver for the project in a special meeting that took place immediately following a public hearing in which property owners who have holdings near the proposed tower site were allowed to comment on the project. Seven individuals provided comments to the commissioners during the hearing at the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building, with one property owner expressing approval for the project because of possible cell service improvement and several others voicing their concerns about potential impact on their property values.

The proposed tower would be built on the summit of Brown Mountain, which is located off Cullowhee Mountain Road. WCU has owned a 361-acre parcel at the site of the proposed tower since the late 1950s, and the university’s Board of Trustees voted in September 2016 to lease nine acres of the property to the WCU Endowment Fund to facilitate construction of the tower, which would stand 185 feet tall, including a 5-foot lightning rod. WWCU’s signal is currently broadcasted from a tower located off U.S. 74 near Balsam Gap.

The commissioners’ waiver releases the university from requirements having to do with tower height, visibility of the tower from a public road, construction of an access road that meets private road standards in the subdivision ordinance, and a $5,000 application fee.