By Mark Bryant
SO YOU'RE DRIVING along scenic State Route 83, and glancing to the east you spot a giant golf ball, painted brown, standing above the rugged horizon of the Empire Mountains. Welcome to the latest weather radar tower, a boon to local weather forecasting and a bane to nearby property owners.
Once built, the tower's microwaves will scan the heavens for nearly 300 miles around. Within half that distance, the beams can peer inside clouds and thunderstorms, charting weather patterns for aviators and residents. Weather forecasts will improve greatly, including warnings of flash floods and severe storms. Throughout the country, the Congress-mandated program has built about 80 of the 116 such towers to be installed.
Yet a band of local critics charges the federal government with ignoring local regulations, ignoring local residents and spending too many taxpayer dollars. They want it out of their neighborhood. But these folks make a better case than the typical NIMBY.
The first survey to find a site for NEXRAD (NEXt generation weather RADar) back in 1986 chose one in Sahuarita, on state-owned land. But potential electromagnetic interference with observatories at Mt. Lemmon, Mt. Hopkins, Kitt Peak and downtown Tucson killed that idea. Alternative sites had the same problem. So the government eventually settled on the Empire Mountains because surrounding peaks could block radio-frequency radiation that might affect sensitive observatory equipment.
Sounds ideal. However, the Empire Mountain Coalition says those mountains don't quite solve the problem for the observatories, plus they leave some blind spots for reading weather patterns. Today's computer technology would allow "spot blocking," that is, programming the sweeping microwaves to not point at area observatories. This would allow the federal government to find a better and cheaper site elsewhere. But Marvin Shogren, the local meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service, says that software isn't available to them.
"We think we've found the best possible location to get the job done," he says.
Maybe, but it's costing the government plenty. For one, it needed only 2.5 acres for the tower. But officials couldn't find a seller willing to part with that small a parcel, so they paid $83,000 for 41.6 acres. That's about four times the price of adjacent acreage that UA professor Richard Michod paid for his property. Michod says of his neighbor-seller, "He had the government over a barrel."
The coalition hired Ron Asta, a real estate consultant and former Pima County supervisor, to make the government follow its own rules. He cites Public Law 100-678, which requires federal agencies to make every effort to comply with local zoning and building codes. Granted, in the end the government doesn't have to follow those rules, but at least it has to try. Unfortunately, however, it hasn't even done that: The government's hired consultants, SRI International, of California, merely put in the report what should be done.
According to Asta, if a private company were doing the same project, it would face public hearings before the planning commission and the county board of supervisors. And because the 142-foot-tall tower (including the nine-foot lightning rod) would be closer to the property line than its height--typically not allowed--a conditional-use permit would be required. Even the government's report says as much and lays out the steps to follow for zoning and development.
None of this has happened, and work on the project is scheduled to begin this month. "This is arrogance," Asta says.
Shogren says the feds have been working with local agencies, though Asta has found no sign of it. As for all the extra land the government now owns, Shogren says that will likely be sold off in the future--maybe even at a profit--which saddens most surrounding property owners who savor the unsullied mile-high remoteness.
Roger Penwick, a Tucson veterinarian who owns property in the Empire Mountains, criticized the project, with its road and power lines, as a harbinger of development. "It is that future expansion which I feel will destroy the ecosystem and environment of one of the relatively untrammeled areas in Pima County," he wrote in a letter to the National Weather Service. "It is a very stark and very fragile ecosystem which would in my opinion be liable to the ingress of man."
These sites typically run about $3 million, but most get built at airports, so there's no land, utilities or access costs. However, the National Weather Service wants better coverage than a site at Tucson International Airport would afford. Radar there already interferes with area observatories, Shogren says, and it's a poor location for depicting weather over the metropolitan area. The current system is also antiquated and cannot see toward the southeast, from where summer storms often approach.
The project, scheduled for completion in mid-May, could end up costing even more than budgeted. Coalition members, who've already hired an attorney, say they may file an injunction to halt the project. The loose-knit group believes
A band of local critics charges the federal government with ignoring local regulations, ignoring local residents and spending too many taxpayer dollars. They want it out of their neighborhood. But these folks make a better case than the typical NIMBY.
the project site would flounder on its own flaws, if only public hearings could reveal what Michod calls "a real biased, pro-government, pro-radar report that needs to be independently reviewed."
As a geneticist, Michod is more than a bit concerned about the microwave radiation a tower next door would emit. The National Weather Service maintains the amount is low and harmless. Michod counters that what is called "safe" is relative to the standards of the day. And those levels cause genetic mutations in mice. Microwaves have been studied for only 40 years, which isn't even close to the normal lifetime of a human being.
"Most of us go out there to get away from the urban environment," Michod says, not to get doused with radar.
The report concluded the project would have no significant impact on people or the environment. That means no Environmental Impact Statement, which would subject the project to the eyes of independent experts and open it up to public discussion.
Another coalition member, Wayne Powell, also blasted the report. "A lot of this is so slipshod, they couldn't have anticipated anyone actually looking it over," he says. "I think they made a mistake in judging that there were just a lot of farming Okies out there."
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