The cell tower applications discussed here will be heard at the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors’ regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7 — a meeting that will also be moved from its usual courthouse venue to the Rappahannock County High School auditorium.
AT&T’s remaining two applications, to extend the Sprint poles at Ben Venue and Amissville, come before the planning commission at its Feb. 16 meeting.
The county’s board of supervisors will consider at its next meeting on Feb. 7 AT&T’s applications to build two more 199-foot cellular-service monopoles in the county.
Both were recommended for approval by county planners last week.
After a public hearing at the high school attended by some 50 citizens last Wednesday night (Jan. 19), the Rappahannock County Planning Commission voted to recommend approval to the supervisors of AT&T monopole facilities behind the high school on U.S. 211 and off Woodward Road in Sperryville.
Among those in attendance, 28 citizens took their allotted three minutes to speak about AT&T’s plans. Although many prefaced their remarks with the caution that “I’m not against cell phone service,” the majority of those who spoke urged the commissioners to either reject the applications or delay action to allow more study or to find alternatives.
Others, most of whom cited the benefits of better cell coverage in matters of fire and rescue communications and public safety, urged the commissioners to do what they eventually did three hours after the meeting started — vote unanimously for the Sperryville application, 6-1 for the high school plan (with Stonewall-Hawthorne commissioner Gary Light opposed).
About half those in attendance did not rise to speak.
If built, the poles will be among the county’s tallest structures — along with an AT&T tower off U.S. 522 in Boston, which the supervisors approved at their Jan. 3 meeting, and two more proposed extensions of existing Sprint poles at Ben Venue (from 80 to 144 feet) and Amissville (from 170 to 198 feet), scheduled to be heard by the planning commission Feb. 16.
AT&T spokesman Ed Donohue said the mobile phone company’s overall plan — if all three new towers and two extended poles go up — would provide “robust” coverage to 45 percent of the county’s roughly 7,000 residents.
Enhanced coverage maps presented to the commissioners sometime before Wednesday night’s meeting showed that the most robust coverage projected by the new towers, not unexpectedly, follows the county’s most traveled roads: U.S. 211 from east of the Culpeper County line to near the Shenandoah National Park boundary west of Sperryville, and U.S. 522 from Huntly south to beyond Boston.
In a slide presentation to the audience and commissioners at the start of the meeting, Donohue said AT&T’s five facilities, which some have criticized as “piecemeal,” were submitted in October “as one” — though the site applications are being considered one or two at a time. The enhanced coverage maps, he said, “attempt to show the network we propose — and it is, we feel, a holistic approach to a network solution.”
He quoted from the last year’s county Economic Revitalization Advisory Committee report, which called increased cellular and internet connectivity “critical” to the county’s economic future, which is primarily agricultural and tourism based and which includes a relatively high percentage (17.1 percent) of self-employed residents.
He said AT&T’s plan to provide cell coverage includes its own native broadband component, in addition to tower co-location possibilities — up to four slots on their poles — available to wireless broadband providers like Piedmont Broadband and Virginia Broadband as well as to other cell providers.
Donohue said AT&T had no co-location agreements yet but that such opportunities would not be offered to other providers until sometime after the projects are approved.
Speaking against . . .
Among the notable comments of the 15 citizens who urged the commissioners to reject or delay the application:
• “The county is the subject of derision for rubber-stamping the first cell tower proposal [at Boston],” said Phil Irwin of Flint Hill, a longtime B&B owner and founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection. RLEP has opposed the 199-foot towers because they violate, in its members’ view, the intent of the county comprehensive plan and especially its protection of the scenic “viewshed” hereabouts.
When Sprint built towers in the county 10 years ago, Irwin said, it took RLEP’s and the Piedmont Environmental Council’s advice and found “ways to provide cell phone service without anyone driving by knowing there is cell phone service.
“You did it before,” he told the commissioners. “You can do it again. Please do it again.”
• “I ask the planning commission to set a new tone here,” said Karen Hunt of Amissville. “Please recommend against these applications and suggest alternatives. This is not the best that they [AT&T] can do.”
• “If the public cannot comment on the documents you got just today,” said the PEC’s Todd Benson, who lives in Flint Hill, referring to the enhanced coverage maps, “then the public is cut out of the process. You should table this matter tonight; there’s no hurry. You are well within the 150-day limit” the county has to respond to the application.
• “Why are you, who represent me, dealing with AT&T differently then we dealt with Sprint?” asked Monira Rifaat of Sperryville. “I hold you accountable. It’s wrong to change the rules when a new applicant comes down the road.”
• AT&T’s applications, said the PEC’s local conservation officer, Don Loock, made no reference to the scenic byways and highways along which its towers would be visible. “There is no mention of how the high school tower’s effect on the scenic highway of 211 is mitigated,” said Loock, “and the zoning ordinance says it should be mitigated.”
(This was among the reasons cited by Light for voting against the high school tower. “I think the applicant could have done more to mitigate here, other than saying the high school building would screen the ground facility’s view from the highway,” Light said.)
In favor of the towers . . .
Among those eight citizens and six commissioners who spoke in favor of the AT&T applications:
• Demaris Miller of Washington suggested that increased cell coverage would not only increase public safety but would “increase the possibilities for young people to stay in the county. And remember, we are aging as a population here.”
• “These are not new devices,” said John Diley, responding to several who expressed fear that the 199-foot high school tower, which is just over 80 feet from the nearest school building, could theoretically fall on the school. “These poles have been through category 2, category 3 hurricanes. And to fall 199 feet, it would have to break off at its base — my understanding is when these poles do break, the upppermost part, the top-heavy section with all the antenna platforms, is what breaks off and falls.”
(Donohue later said the “fall zone” for these towers is 70 feet, and that the claims of two speakers that electromagnetic emissions from the towers was a health risk has never been proven in a “peer-reviewed” test — although, he pointed out, such concerns were “not really a proper land-use consideration.”)
• “I suspect that with some effort,” Mike Mahoney of Washington told the commissioners, “you could marginally improve the coverage [for county residents] — but only at the margins. And if that’s your objective here, you might as well forget it.”
• “As far as offering alternative sites,” said commissioner (and supervisor) Ron Frazier, “this body has nothing to say on that subject . . . the benefit of these towers for fire and rescue and emergency medical services is weighing heavily on me right now. Anyone who can get up at 2 in the morning and come out for us . . . and we give them a county sticker and $200 off their county property taxes — and that’s it.”
• “I think I’m one of two other commissioners who was on this board 10 years ago [when Sprint’s revised application was heard],” said Al Henry of the Hampton District. “. . . we were here until 1:30 in the morning, and it was standing room only — and even then, not as many spoke in favor of it as spoke in favor here tonight.
“We approved them that night, and I’m pretty sure no one on the conservation side thought we did the right thing. Now, the PEC came to my office in Warrenton the other day — to tell me that 10 years ago, we did the right thing, and we should do it again tonight.
“To me, the net benefits of this plan are greater than the disadvantages.”
After the public hearing ended, County Administrator John W. McCarthy, who is also the county zoning administrator, said he wanted to address those who said the county was “treating AT&T differently than we treated Sprint.
“It’s incumbent upon me to point out that both companies are being treated the same.” A decade ago, he said, Sprint submitted applications for several tall monopoles and lattice-type towers up to 300 feet high — a plan “almost universally panned by people in the county. The objections were so immediate and strong that Sprint unilaterally withdrew those applications. They met with the RLEP and PEC, and came up with the amended proposal that was eventually approved.
“The county does not really have the ability to negotiate,” he said.
“When these [AT&T] applications were filed, there was not the outcry there was 10 years ago,” he said.
Later in the week, McCarthy was asked if the planning commission, as some had since complained in letters and posts to Rappnet, the county’s email list-serve, “didn’t listen” to the public comments against the towers at the meeting.
“I don’t think that’s accurate,” he said. “I think this is an item in a strong debate. There is a lot of public support for it; there’s also opposition. As is often the case in a public debate, the side whose opinion isn’t followed claims it wasn’t heard — when in reality it was heard, but wasn’t agreed with.”
The commission’s votes on the two applications added conditions identical to those imposed for the Boston tower — that the poles be painted, most likely brown; that if any future Federal Aviation Administration rule change requires warning lights on structures under 200 feet, the tower must be reconfigured to a height that does not require lights; and that AT&T provide space, if requested, for fire and rescue service antennas on the pole.