It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's a 130-foot emergency communications tower that grew seemingly overnight on an area in east Medford known as Capital Hill, surprising residents as far as a mile away.
"We came home one night and saw it with its red light," said Craig Fronek, a resident of Valley View Drive. "My 12-year-old said, 'Look, Dad, there's a helicopter.' I said, 'No, that's not a helicopter. What is that thing?' "
The city of Medford built the tower last month on Medford Water Commission property to help improve radio communication between 9-1-1 dispatchers and firefighters and police. City officials neglected to inform the neighbors, who saw the tower go up in less than three weeks. Some neighbors on Valley View and Ridge Way, where the tower is most visible, said they didn't even hear noise from construction.
"We dropped the ball on making notification," said Medford police Chief Randy Schoen. "Not that we had to, but I wanted to because people are wondering what the heck is going on when they see the tower."
The more than $60,000 tower replaces a 60-foot tower to the south on the same 9-acre property owned by the water commission and will fill gaps in the city's communication system. The tower has served as the city's primary communications transmission center since 1988. Emergency responders sometimes lose reception in low-lying areas of the city, as well as inside buildings such as the Rogue Valley Mall, Schoen said. The taller, more powerful tower will solve those problems, he said.
"It means life or death for our people and the people they help," Schoen said.
Under city ordinance, municipalities are exempt from applying to the city planning department to build a structure intended for the public interest. However, the commission is where the public generally finds out about projects planned in the city, unless the city makes an effort to send out notices. In this case, Schoen said he asked a deputy chief to contact neighbors about the project. The deputy chief passed the task on to the city's two radio technicians, who ended up notifying only a couple of residents in early December, Schoen said.
"I'm beating myself up for not clearly articulating what I wanted," he said.
Valley View resident Paulie Ziemann, who can see the tower from her backyard, said the city usually sends out letters when there's a survey or other activity residents need to know about.
"They could have sent a letter to us as they have before," Ziemann said. "All our lots are online. They know how to reach us."
Residents weren't only wondering what was afoot; they were bewildered that the city chose to place the tower so close to homes rather than higher up on the hill, which is named for Capital Avenue on which the property is located. Some residents said the tower glows at night from the city lights.
"It's a monstrosity," Ziemann said.
A perplexed Dave Wood, who lives 30 feet from the new tower, stood in his backyard and watched workers fell a couple of oak trees in early December in preparation for the tower.(Correction: The distance between Wood's home and the tower has been corrected in this story.) He said he had to ask one of the workers to find out what was going on.
"I'm the one who is most impacted, and we didn't even have a chance to voice our concern," Wood said.
"It was nice here until that occurred. It's gone from oak savannah green to steel and concrete mean, but the city made their decision."
Schoen said the location of the tower was the only cost-effective option on the property. Most of the 9 acres is riddled with water lines. The only other possible location higher up on the hill would have cost the city at least $60,000 more to drill through and secure the tower's foundation because of large rocks, Schoen said.
Although the tower is complete, it has not yet been turned on. City officials still plan to erect an 8-by-14-foot prefabricated building next to the tower to house a generator and other equipment. The project is scheduled to conclude by early June.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.