Limestone Cove residents sign a petition requesting a cell phone tower be located in the community,  primarily for safety measures. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Limestone Cove residents sign a petition requesting a cell phone tower be located in the community, primarily for safety measures. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The residents of Limestone Cove want to be heard.

On Monday, April 17, a small but passionate contingent of the community’s citizenry gathered at the Limestone Cove Community Center to discuss cellular phone coverage – or the virtual complete lack thereof – within the Limestone Cove area.

County officials have been made aware of the situation. Petitions have circulated and remain open to those wishing to sign. These actions, along with Monday’s meeting, are part of an ongoing effort by members of the Limestone Cove community to see the installation of a cell phone tower in the area.

While she said the convenience of neighbors being able to reach one another on their cell phones would be nice, Karen Lance, a Limestone Cove resident and organizer of Monday’s meeting, said this is not the driving force behind the community’s call to arms.

“The safety is the main concern for the majority of us,” Lance said.

Lance said cell service within the community is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. Signal bars – regardless of provider – drop at the waste convenience center located on Tennessee Highway 107, the main thoroughfare through Limestone Cove. From that center, a reliable signal cannot be found until one has passed Buladean, N.C., Lance said.

But Lance said there are things Limestone Cove residents can try to help get a signal. Pacing back and forth in open areas sometimes results in a weak signal, she said. Some residents can open their windows and contort their phones to just the right angle to perhaps get a bar.

“The majority of people cannot get it,” Lance said of cell phone service.

Still, Lance said, most people who live in Limestone Cove own a cell phone. However, she said those looking to use them often have to stop at Jones Hardware, located at the intersection of 107 and Unicoi Drive just before entering Limestone Cove, to make their calls.

The majority of individuals attending Monday’s meeting had their own stories to share about how the community’s lack of cell service has adversely impacted others or themselves.

Limestone Cove is a heavily forested region of Unicoi County and, as such, the possibility of striking wildlife while traveling in and out of the community is increased, especially at night or when conditions are unfavorable.

Alisa Hensley knows this all too well.

While traveling through Limestone Cove last January, Hensley struck a deer. Fortunately for Hensley, she resides in the community and was able to get her car home, contact authorities and report the accident.

But the situation, Hensley said, could have been much worse. She said Limestone Cove is not a community that’s rife with businesses, meaning those who experience car trouble or are involved in accidents cannot walk into a nearby establishment to seek assistance.

“I mean, I wouldn’t have to walk all that far to go to somebody’s house that I know but, at the same time, there are people who travel through here and don’t have that community outreach,” Hensley said.

And Hensley has realized firsthand the effect the poor cell signal can have on emergency responders. She and her fiancé both serve with the Limestone Cove Volunteer Fire Department. Emergency radios emit heavy static in Limestone Cove, Hensley said, adding the cell phone issue prevents emergency officials from reaching one another. She said while crews are en route to the scene of an emergency, new information provided after the initial report may be lost due to the lack of cell service.

“Once we get the information, if somebody were to update us, we couldn’t even hear it,” Hensley said.

Karen Crutchley recalled her own recent emergency. And while everything worked out, Crutchley, like Hensley, said her situation could have been much worse.

Crutchley said her emergency situation occurred around 6 a.m. on July 26, 2016. Her husband Kyle had just left for work.

“He walked out the door, and whenever he walked out the door I stood up,” Crutchley said. “Whenever I stood up from the bed, my water broke.”

By that point, Crutchley said it was impossible for her to make her way through her home and out the front door in an attempt to stop her husband before he left. The situation forced Crutchley to walk into her bathroom – which happens to be the room where she has the best cell signal – open a window to search for a signal and contact her aunt who lives down the road.

“It connects and drops, connects and drops, like 10 times,” Crutchley said of her call attempts.

The phone, Crutchley said, would ring once before the call dropped. After receiving repeated one-ring calls, Crutchley’s aunt, Karen Goebel, recognized her niece was in need of help. Goebel rushed to Crutchley’s home to assist her.

“I still couldn’t get ahold of my husband because he was going out of the cove. He didn’t have any service. I couldn’t call him to stop him,” Crutchley said. “So I called my husband’s boss once we got to where we could call, once we got out of the cove, and I told his boss, I said, ‘Hey, as soon Kyle gets there, turn him around’.”

The lack of cell coverage in Limestone Cove has prompted Goebel to implement her own safety measures. During the winter, she provides family members with information on the routes she will be traveling. She also issues the directive that if she is not home by a specific time that family members should contact the police.

Judy Gouge lives along the roadway that leads up to the Beauty Spot. Gouge said on more than one occasion, travelers taking that route, who have slipped off of the roadway, have knocked on her door asking to use her phone.

“It’s a lot of people from the mountain,” Gouge said. “They’ll either wreck or run off the road or something like that.”

And while most living there would describe Limestone Cove as “tight-knit,” this doesn’t mean neighbors are always located within close proximity.

“You just gotta pray that somebody you know passes or you can walk to the closest phone because there’s probably a 2-mile gap coming up the highway where there’s no houses, there’s no access to anything,” Crutchley said.

Many of those present for Monday’s community meeting attended the March 27 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission to seek the assistance of local officials. 

County officials have heard these calls for help and are working to answer them. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and County Commissioner John Mosley, who represents the county’s 3rd district which includes Limestone Cove, attended Monday’s meeting to update residents on their efforts to bring a cell tower to the community.

Lynch said he recently contacted Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, who previously worked in the cellular phone industry. Eldridge put Lynch in contact with Alan Hill with AT&T. Lynch said Hill advised he will check with engineers from his company to see if the installation of a cell tower in the area was in its long-range pipeline.

Eldridge also put Lynch in touch with Vicki Farmer, a wireless communications professional. Farmer is in the process of conducting a feasibility study in the area, Lynch said.

Along with these contacts, Lynch said he has also discussed the matter with State Sen. Rusty Crowe, who has been working with cell service providers to bring service to unserved areas. To aid in the effort, Lynch has asked Crowe to provide updated – or at least the most recent – traffic count information for the Limestone Cove area.

“When we get that, according to Ms. Farmer, that may help in trying to convince one of the carriers to be interested enough to go onto the tower and to get a company to build a tower,” Lynch said.

In the past, cell service providers have advised county officials there are simply not enough households in the Limestone Cove area to bring about the installation of a tower, Lynch said. But Lynch said the information used in such examinations is typically the most recent U.S. Census, which took place in 2010. Lance said the community has grown significantly since that Census was completed.

However, Lynch said a company has contacted the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s Office to express interest in installing a tower somewhere along Deer Haven Drive. Lynch said the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is also working with the state in an attempt to bolster connectivity for emergency services. Through this program, AT&T, which was selected by FirstNet to complete the project, would install small towers along state and county rights-of-way in order to bring emergency communication to different areas.

“We’re not sure if it will bleed over to civilian use or not, but at least we’ll have some emergency communication if this transpires,” Lynch said.

Lynch said cell phone towers are not installed by the service carriers themselves but rather by tower construction companies. Providers then “rent” space on the tower, Lynch said. Mosley said he has not only spoken with Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw regarding the matter, but also with Jamie Harris from Vertical Bridge, a company that manages and operates towers. Mosley said Harris seemed “receptive” to helping those in Limestone Cove.

“It does seem like everything is moving in a positive direction,” Mosley said.

Several Limestone Cove residents have already stepped up and are willing to provide a portion of their property for the installation of a cell tower, Lance said.

Lance also said she was encouraged by the news shared Monday by Lynch and Mosley. She said a tower would not only benefit those in the community, but the multitude of motorists passing through Limestone Cove each day, as well as nearby areas of Carter County that also lack cell coverage. 

“I see there’s hope, see a ray of light where before we had not seen it,” she said.

And, just as they did last month, Lance said members of the community intend to be present during the Monday, April 24, meeting of the Unicoi County Commission to again broach Limestone Cove’s cell coverage issue.

“It’s just needed so very badly,” Lance said.

Lance said the petition calling for the installation of a tower in the community is open to any Unicoi County resident wishing to sign. Those wishing to sign may reach Lance at 743-4037. That, of course, is her landline number.