Nesbitt said he moved to his home, which is located on a wooded slope across the street from Burnt Hickory Farms subdivision, 20 years ago precisely because it was an excellent spot to pursue his passion for amateur radio, also known as ham radio, a non-commercial radio communication service.
He erected three radio towers on the slope behind his home in the 1990s: two that crank up to 35 feet and one that is 70 feet in height.
Two years ago, he built a fourth 140 foot radio tower which he estimates cost him “easily” $30,000 to $40,000.
In March, the county received a complaint about the tower and issued Nesbitt a notice of violation. Nesbitt responded to this notice by arguing that ham radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and therefore are exempt from local ordinances. But just to be safe, he applied for a special land permit for the 140 foot tower, which the county’s Planning Commission denied on Tuesday in a 5-0 vote.
The matter now heads to the Board of Commissioners on Oct. 16.
During Tuesday’s hearing, John Pederson, the county’s zoning division manager, said any tower above 35 feet needs a special land use permit unless it’s a ham radio tower in which case the county allows a property owner to have one that is up to 70 feet in height.
Pederson also said the county did not have building permits on record for either the 70 foot or the 140 foot tower, something that was required.
Bob Hovey, Commissioner Helen Goreham’s appointment to the Planning Commission, led the case to deny the permit during the meeting.
“Can you tell us how we got to the place where we basically ignored the law for land use permits and building permits for 10 years?” Hovey asked Nesbitt’s attorney, Christopher Balch, during the hearing.
Balch said there was never an intention to defy the county’s ordinance.
“We’ve tried to reach a balance based on Mr. Nesbitt’s lay understanding of (the FCC) and its preemption status and respond appropriately under those circumstances,” Balch said.
County attorney Dorothy Bishop weighed in with her opinion on the 140 foot tower.
“The tower does have to comply with local ordinances because it’s a balancing act between the rights of the amateur radio operator and the county zoning, so this application should be considered under the same criteria as any tower of its size,” Bishop said.
While no one turned out to speak against the tower during the hearing, one of Nesbitt’s neighbor’s, Jodi Siciliano, told the Journal she hopes the Board of Commissioners will deny the request.
“My objection is that my house faces his backyard, so I look right at them, and you know, we have nice houses here, and they’re very unsightly, not nice to look at, these huge gigantic radio towers that you’re facing, plus, they are very, very tall, and if one of them were to come down it would come down close to my driveway,” said Siciliano, who said she moved in her house in 2006.
Nesbitt, who is retired from the telephone and construction industries, said he will defend his towers in court if necessary.
“If I knew I was wrong in what my privileges provide I’d take steps to change it or correct it,” Nesbitt said. “But the FCC has given me this privilege, and I’ve had this privilege for nearly 50 years. I’m not about to let somebody take it because they just feel like taking it. That’s wrong.”
Nesbitt said he learned about amateur radio as a teenager in Miami when a classmate couldn’t figure out how to work his short wave radio.
“After building that one radio, I got it to work, I bought other small kits, and then I started hearing these guys talking to one another, these were ham operators. And I said, ‘I wanted to do that.’”
Nesbitt taught himself how to send and receive Morse code and later learned how to talk over the radio with a microphone. One room in his house is entirely devoted to the hobby, filled with various transceivers dating to the 1950s, all of them in working order.
“There are over 600,000 licensed ham radio operators in the United States,” Nesbitt said. “We come out when there are national emergencies. We don’t get any monies for our services. This is a voluntary group of operators. (The FCC) they recognize the importance of operators in national disasters and emergency conditions. There is no other service in the U.S. that does what we do on a 24/7 hour basis. So that is the reason they have an interest. When all else goes down in a natural disaster, when land line communication goes out, we’re there, and we’ve been there under all conditions. When they had the earthquake in Haiti, when they had the problems over in the Far East, when they had several tsunamis and there was no communication, the only way communications got out was through ham radio.”
Nesbitt said he has befriended fellow ham radio operators from all over the world.
“One of my most exciting conversations was when I talked to a guy in the Antarctic,” he said. “He’s on nothing but ice. There are research firms that are down there doing research and they use ham radio to communicate back to the States.”
Nesbitt said he didn’t want to calculate how much he has spent on his hobby, otherwise, his wife, Patricia, would use it against him next time he wanted to make a purchase.
As for the county, “They want to impose their law and the federal government is the law that I am governed by,” he said.
Yet Hovey views it differently.
“These houses have a right to walk out their front door and not see what amounts to an illegal tower in their front yard,” Hovey said. “Now, I have friends who are radio amateurs, and I can’t even call them part of the day because they stay up all night on their radios. This is a serious thing, and I respect amateur radio, and I think this is a great civil service these folks provide, but it doesn’t mean they can ignore the rights of their neighbors.”