Meeting before a partisan crowd of about 40 at the high school auditorium, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors took two unanimous actions Monday night in the matter of two of AT&T’s five proposed cellular installations. One was unanticipated, the other clearly unwanted by those partisans.
After AT&T representative Edward Donohue explained that an alternate site for the proposed 199-foot monopole at the high school had been submitted earlier in the day — another 220-plus feet from the school and 150 feet farther from U.S. 211, a scenic highway — the supervisors voted to table the matter until their March meeting to give them, and the public, a chance to consider it.
And, after hearing the voices of 22 citizens, a majority urging the board to reject or delay AT&T’s application for a 199-foot pole off Woodward Road south of Sperryville, the supervisors voted unanimously, though by no measure gleefully, to approve the application.
Opponents at the hearing outnumbered those who spoke in favor of the Sperryville tower two to one, a dozen rising to speak against it, sometimes angrily, and half as many urging the supervisors to approve the special-use permit required of cellular carriers before they can build such a facility.
The Sperryville monopole is the second AT&T facility approved by the board; the first was approved last month for a wooded site off U.S. 522 near Boston. The high school tower, for which AT&T will pay the school board $14,400 a year in lease fees as well as provide its schools and offices broadband Internet service, now gets a public hearing at the supervisors’ March 7 meeting.
AT&T’s applications to extend existing Sprint towers in Ben Venue and behind the Amissville fire hall are to be considered by the county planning commission at its Feb. 16 meeting.
A balloon test for the relocated tower was still being arranged at press time; some thought the test, in which AT&T engineers float a balloon at the height of the tower to indicate its visibility, might occur this coming weekend.
Sperryville district supervisor Mike Biniek tried to float a motion to table the Sperryville application; there was no second. When Bryant Lee’s motion to approve it came up, Biniek took several long moments and sighed loudly before saying “Aye.”
Supervisor Chris Parrish apologized to those who live closest to the Sperryville tower. Several had spoken out against the 199-foot height, neighbor Jeb Wofford calling it “enormous” and “in your face.” He and several others left the auditorium after Parrish’s comment.
All five supervisors said they’d heard from many constituents who urged them not to reject AT&T’s plans, especially those who provide emergency services and those who spend significant time on the road.
Sheriff’s Maj. Scott Jenkins came to the microphone and suggested that citizens “try to work as hard for a solution to our emergency communications problems as you are working against these unsightly towers. Please try to keep an open mind. Communications is a need, not a want.”
Some who spoke at Monday’s hearing suggested the supervisors were afraid to reject the applications for fear of having to meet AT&T’s significant resources in a court challenge.
“I didn’t move out to Rappahannock County to be steamrolled,” said Frank Rader. “Now that we’re offering up our zoning ordinance to AT&T, what’s next? McDonald’s? Wal-Mart?”
“I have to say, for the record,” said County Administrator John W. McCarthy, after the public hearing ended, “that we are not chicken.”
That the supervisors a decade ago approved seven applications for cell towers by Sprint would make such a challenge unwinnable, he said.
The county’s zoning ordinance, McCarthy said, allows poles up to 199 feet — if their visible effect on scenic value is deemed acceptable. The zoning ordinance is based on the comprehensive plan cited by Piedmont Environmental Council representatives, the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection and others as the justification to reject AT&T’s proposals.
“The zoning ordinance is amended from time to time when the comprehensive plan is revised and updated every five years,” McCarthy said. “And for the past nine years, there’s been no effort to amend the zoning ordinance, which allows 199-foot towers.
“The notion that AT&T is not complying [with the ordinance] on the face of it is just not true,” he said.
Defending the supervisors who some in the crowd suggested were unwilling to “take on” AT&T, or to offer the company alternatives, McCarthy said: “It’s not fear. It’s the desire they have heard from the community to have better cell coverage.
“And as for alternatives — it’s the same process for someone who comes to the county to open a B&B. We can’t say to them, ‘We’ll approve it but we want you to go buy that house over there instead of the one you wanted, and open the B&B there.’
“We can’t find the best solution. Can the board say no? They can. Do I think they should? No.”