Perhaps it's Burkittsville's strikingly unsullied, antebellum aura that has made it so difficult for residents of this Western Maryland town to stomach the intrusion of the Internet:
No gas stations, stoplights or stores. Just a main street lined with one post office, two churches and several dozen brick or clapboard houses, and a sea of farm fields, barns and silos--all in the shadow of South Mountain, one of the most threatened Civil War battlefields in the country. If the 20th century left anything behind in this valley, you have to squint to see it.
The town had its first clash with cyberspace last summer, with the 'Net-spread notion that the hit movie "The Blair Witch Project" was a true story set in Burkittsville. This time, however, it's a (literally) concrete aspect of the Internet that is galvanizing opposition.
AT&T Communications wants to build, in a farmer's cow pasture just above town, a "regeneration station"--a 37-foot-high building with enough space to house about 16,000 square feet of electrical equipment that would boost the signal of a fiber-optic line carrying voice and data between Washington and St. Louis.
"It just shocked us," said Burkittsville farmer Elaine Hottel. "What's going to be the next thing? Dishes? Towers?"
It's a largely unregulated dispute that has been breaking out across the country during the past year, as fiber-optic firms compete to lay cable and build facilities to handle the nation's ever-growing demand for high-tech communication. Already the telecommunications industry has run into well-documented conflicts over the infrastructure it has been building in cities and suburbs. But lately, the demand is so great and the cable grid is growing so huge that the conflicts are spilling out into rural and exurban settings:
* American Indian tribes in California, Canada and Rhode Island have said that companies, including Ledcor Industries, Level Three Communications and Qwest Communications, were improperly excavating in sensitive native lands and burial sites.
* California officials halted a project of Worldwide Fiber (formerly Pacific Fiber Link LLC) after its workers were discovered digging without permission in sensitive stream beds. Landowners from the Oak Run community in Shasta County are fighting the company's proposal for a multi-structure switching station complex, along a line that stretches from Sacramento to Seattle.
* Class-action lawsuits have been filed across the country, pitting landowners against telecommunications companies and railroads, which the complainants say improperly sold rights of way on abandoned rail lines. (AT&T recently agreed to pay $45,000 per mile to landowners in Indiana, where it put down fiber on what turned out to be private land.)
"These outfits are trenching first and asking questions later," said Jim Aligo, one of the Oak Run residents. "Somebody's got to control this."
But in many cases these disputes slip through the regulatory cracks.
"A lot of the legislation was put in a long time ago," said Tim Sullivan, a staff member for the California Public Utilities Commission. "Now there's a new race on to lay this cable, and we have to go back and take another look." The commission is bringing tribal, environmental and industry representatives together this month to discuss the recent problems there.
The Federal Communications Commission has been peppered in recent months with requests that it referee disputes with fiber-optic companies, according to Marty Schwimmer, a lawyer with the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau.
Although the FCC has generally steered clear of real estate matters--especially in the wake of the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996--the agency has recently waded tentatively into the fray, starting with Burkittsville.
At the request of a coalition that includes the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, the Mid-Maryland Land Trust Association and the South Mountain Heritage Society, the FCC has sought public comment on whether the proposed AT&T facility is subject to its regulation and, if so, whether it will significantly harm environmental or historic resources.
Opponents say allowing the regeneration station and some additional cable in Burkittsville would be the beginning of the end for the quaint valley, whose denizens are a mix of old farm families and newcomers taking advantage of the one-hour train ride to Washington from nearby Brunswick Station.
"You let one of these things come in, and then another and 100--pretty soon, all this is gone," said former Burkittsville mayor Paul Gilligan.
He is part of a coalition of environmental, historic and farmland preservation groups trying to block the proposed building, arguing that it would spoil the scenery, trample Civil War history and diminish the rural quality of hundreds of acres of farmland that the state and federal government spent some $15 million to preserve.
But AT&T officials, who hired an architect to redesign the building to look like "a German barn," say it would blend in seamlessly with the landscape.
"We've taken a lot of care and caution to make sure this fits in," said Candace Humphries, a spokeswoman for the company, noting that the proposed ersatz barn may look more agrarian than the small (150-square-foot) fiber-optic building on site now.
Frederick County officials are considering redrafting zoning ordinances that have given utilities the right to build on agriculturally zoned land without the usual tough review process, but the changes would come too late to affect the Burkittsville case.
"It's been a rubber stamp . . . and the problem is an antiquated zoning ordinance," said Pat Carter, of Middletown, Md., a lawyer with one of the opponent groups that is contesting county approval for the proposed station.
Hottel, who spoke at one of the county's well-attended public hearings on the facility, just sees it as the opening salvo in the kind of development assault she's been fleeing all her life.
"I didn't think I'd have to go through this again, way out here," said Hottel, who bitterly recalls her family's experience deeding over acres of farmland to governments and utilities, including property that became Dulles International Airport.
The Hottel farm is across the road from the proposed structure, which would sit on a working dairy farm, whose owners, Denny and Ruth Shafer, were paid $11,500 in 1987 in exchange for a right of way. AT&T argues that that agreement, which allowed it to run fiber-optic cable across the property and build a small signal-boosting station, allows it now to build the larger structure.
The purpose of the proposed facility is a bone of contention in this debate, in part because it may have implications for what government restrictions may apply. AT&T maintains that it is not subject to FCC authority in this case and that the building is intended to handle growth in demand for telephone and Internet service in Frederick County and Western Maryland.
"People who are moving into the suburbs want the same kind of facilities and services you have in the city," said AT&T's Humphries.
Frederick is projected to be the fastest-growing Maryland county in the next decade. But opponents are skeptical. Small regeneration stations, to boost the signal, were built at 20-mile intervals along the line. "We wonder if this larger facility doesn't really serve as a switching station for the mid-Atlantic," said Paul M. Rosa, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy.
The other reason for the new cable and expanded facility in Frederick, Humphries says in reply, is to provide a backup line, in case a malfunction shuts down an existing parallel line.
After all parties have submitted their comments to the FCC by the Jan. 28 deadline, the agency could require AT&T to perform an environmental impact study and could halt the project if the impact were deemed severe.
Opponents, meanwhile, are marshaling state historic preservation officials to attest to the area's unique Civil War history. The farm where the structure is proposed was a staging area for Union troops before the Battle of Crampton's Gap in 1862, which was a prelude to the Battle of Antietam.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has named South Mountain, which shadows town to the west, one of the most threatened Civil War battlefields in the country.
Gilligan, the former mayor, brings a visitor to a high point, a patch of vineyards, at the base of South Mountain and offers up the panoramic view of Burkittsville and the farms beyond it.
"We're not opposed to technology," said the retired government statistician, who admits to using the Internet as much as the next person.
"We just wonder, with all the urban areas, with all the unattractive industrially zoned land in the world, why in the world do they have to put this thing here?"
CAPTION: AT&T Communications would like to build a 37-foot-high "regeneration station" with 16,000 square feet of electrical equipment on this parcel of Denny Shafer's farm in Burkittsville, Md. The plan has drawn stiff opposition.
CAPTION: Shafer tends to the calves on his family's farm in Burkittsville. Neighbor Elaine Hottel, also a farmer, says AT&T's proposal "just shocked us."
CAPTION: "You let one of these things come in, and then another and 100--pretty soon, all this is gone," says Paul Gilligan.