Comp plan forum, T-Mobile antenna on county’s radar

Public comment on the ongoing review and revision of Rappahannock County’s Comprehensive Plan, underway now for more than a year, is invited yet again at 7 p.m. next Wednesday (Nov. 18), a half hour before the scheduled start of the planning commission’s monthly meeting at the courthouse.

Among the permit applications to be considered following the forum is an Oct. 20 submission by a contractor for T-Mobile to add an antenna for the cellular provider to the existing Sprint silo-enclosed tower on the Miller farm just across U.S. 211 from the county seat.

The comprehensive plan’s long-standing emphasis on protecting Rappahannock’s scenic and rural/agricultural nature hasn’t changed much in the revision underway, nor is it expected to change significantly. As the start of its Chapter 6 states: “Central to Rappahannock County’s definition of itself are the Blue Ridge Mountains and foothills, among the oldest on earth, and its largely pristine and intact ecosystem. Rappahannock’s agricultural, forestry and tourism industries are critically dependent upon the careful nurturing of these natural resources and landscapes.

“To acknowledge this unique status, we the people of Rappahannock declare it to be a ‘scenic county’ and all goals, principles, and policies will reflect and devolve from this fundamental recognition,” the plan states.

Deborah Keyser, the county’s deputy administrator, created a questionnaire this summer, aiming to gather citizens’ input on the county’s future — essentially what residents believe should change, and what ought never change. Responses are still being collected, both on paper (available at the county administrator’s office) as well as on the county’s website at

It’s expected the revised plan will be considered by the supervisors for adoption early next year.

A working draft of the plan’s revised chapters is available online at (Click on the Library tab.)

The T-Mobile tower, if approved by the planning commission as County Administrator John McCarthy’s recommends, and afterwards by the supervisors, would be the first such project to go forward in about four years. AT&T, though it won approval for three new towers and two co-locations on existing Sprint towers in 2010, only completed one co-location project — adding AT&T service to the Sprint monopole at Ben Venue.

More recent proposals by Community Wireless Structures, which builds cellular facilities and leases antenna space to major carriers, were turned down by the school board (for a plan to build a facility near the high school) and effectively turned away by the supervisors, who decided that CWS needed to have a signed lease with at least one licensed cellular carrier before it could receive a permit for a property near the Flatwood landfill. (CWS normally builds approved facilities first and signs its carrier leases later.)

Comcast's service area in Rappahannock County (shown in green) is not likely to change much, say county officials.Courtesy of Comcast
Comcast’s service area in Rappahannock County (shown in green) is not likely to change much, say county officials.

The county’s other interaction with a major communications company, at the board of supervisors’ evening session Nov. 2, underlined the relatively weak bargaining power a county with a population of  7,000 has in the global telecommunications marketplace.

Since first signing a 20-year non-exclusive cable franchise agreement in 1991 ago with Comcast (or its predecessor, Adelphia), as McCarthy pointed out, “the terms have been radically changed by the state.” He said since several years before it expired in 2011, County Attorney Peter Luke has been negotiating to sign a new agreement.

Under the new agreement, Luke said, the minimum requirements for Comcast to offer service are now: There must be at least 25 dwellings per linear mile, each dwelling no more than 300 feet from the public right of way, and an existing connection to the network must be within a mile away.

The former minimum — 15 dwellings per linear mile — was raised, according to Luke, primarily to account for the substantially increased cost of installing new cable — although he noted that Comcast already serves all dwellings in the county that meet the minimum requirements.

“I started in cable TV in 1979 in western Pennsylvania,” Comcast representative Paul Combs told the supervisors. “We had 16, 17 channels. Now, as in this county, we’ve got hundreds. We went from standard TV to high-definition TV, to internet and broadband. It just costs us more to build, whether we go underground or utility poles, it just costs more to build per mile.”

Combs said Comcast will still look at groups of homes that don’t meet the minimum requirements for service, and would consider extending the network — but “we typically look for some kind of construction aid in those cases,” meaning funding or assistance from the county (or possibly from applicable state or federal grants). Since the advent of other cable-less alternatives (including satellite-based TV and internet service), McCarthy said, such public assistance efforts have become more scarce.

After a public hearing — required by the federal government for cable franchise agreements, and at which no one rose to speak — the supervisors unanimously approved the resolution for the franchise agreement.

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