Cell permit OK’d; comp plan, tourist cabin continued

After hearing more citizens’ comments in the five-year review of the county’s official handbook — its Comprehensive Plan — the Rappahannock County Planning Commission last Wednesday (Nov. 18) demonstrated clearly why having a handbook is helpful.

After a relatively short discussion, the commissioners okayed a T-Mobile application to add cell service near Washington. After a longer and more argumentative discussion, they voted to delay a tourist-home permit application for a Gid Brown Hollow cabin whose out-of-town owners’ approach, if not their plans, clearly rankled several of their neighbors (and a few of the commissioners themselves).

A T-Mobile signal at the Miller silo

The commissioners voted to approve a wireless-facility permit for a licensed T-Mobile contractor, NB+C, to add an antenna array to the existing Sprint-owned tower enclosed in a silo on the Miller farm, opposite U.S. 211 from the town of Washington. With the commission’s recommendation, the permit will be considered by the board of supervisors at its 7 p.m. meeting Dec. 7, following a public hearing.

McCarthy preceded the public comment period with a caution and reminder that the supervisors — or any local or state jurisdiction — cannot, in accordance with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, consider any health-related ill effects of cellular service facilities. He noted a report from County Attorney Peter Luke that cited several cases in which local jurisdictions’ decisions were overturned, including a recent case in which T-Mobile was granted the permit that Loudoun County supervisors denied them, “because the board expressly considered the health effects” as part of its decision.

Cynthia Price of Woodville, and Sue and Mike Luthi of Sperryville, who have frequented many cell-tower related hearings in Rappahannock over the last two years to decry the proximity of transmission towers to schools and concentrations of people, rose to object to the restriction.

“If the county can’t consider the health effects of electromagnetic radiation,” said Price, “that’s just not right.”

NB+C representative Justin Blanset, responding to a question from Hampton district commissioner Alvin Henry about why T-Mobile chose to locate the tower near Washington, said T-Mobile, having covered many urban and suburban areas, was moving toward rural areas. “T-Mobile is required by law to cover a certain percentage of the population,” he said.

“So Rappahannock’s a high-population area for you?” Henry said, prompting laughter.

“Washington is an un-covered area that they [T-Mobile] identified,” Blanset said. In response to question from commission chair Gary Settle of Piedmont district about whether this facility was part of “a larger T-Mobile plan in the county,” Blanset said: “That’s a really good question, and I don’t have the answer. I will say that I am not aware of any other [cellular service] sites planned in Rappahannock County.”

Blanset said Sprint maintains three antennas in the Miller tower, which went online in 2002. He said T-Mobile plans to install five antennas in its proposed array, and that the coverage area could be wider than that covered by Sprint, but did not know for sure.

The comp plan

Following sparsely attended public hearings on the comp plan at most of the county’s fire halls last year, the commission offered a “public forum” on the review process for the comprehensive plan. Wednesday night, about 10 people rose to speak at the forum — which was introduced by Debbie Keyser, the new deputy county administrator who most expect to replace John McCarthy when the longtime county administrator’s contract ends next June.

Earlier this year after hiring Keyser, a Rappahannock native who’d most recently held the county administrator post in Jefferson County, West Virginia, McCarthy’s first move was to ask Keyser to shepherd the comp plan review to completion.

“This is an important project and I want to hear from everyone,” said Keyser, who also recommended anyone interested fill out a questionnaire available at the county administrator office and online at rappahannockcountyva.gov. “And I do want to let you know, and it’s important to understand, that I’m not going to change the comprehensive plan. I think John McCarthy and the board of supervisors have been great stewards of our land and our environment. I don’t want to change that. I see my job as doing things to enhance [the plan], to make it stronger.

Keyser said one such changes is adding a chapter on sustainability. The revised document, she hopes, will be in the planning commission’s hands by January, at which point another public hearing will precede its official recommendation. Final adoption would be the supervisors’ responsibility, likely by spring.

Phil Irwin, a longtime Flint Hill B&B owner and founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) more than 40 years ago, stood to recap the comments he made at most of the commission’s sessions last year: He said the commission should consider reviewing and/or addressing the following in the revised comprehensive plan: “Ridge-top development, historic designations, bike and horse trails, park trailhead maintenance, billboards and signage, towers and communication, lighting and dark skies, noise that is unnatural, wildlife habitat, highway signs, land management, viewshed protection, litter, derelict structures and vehicles, regional planning, solar demand-reduction, public events and easement promotion.”

RLEP’s current president, Rick Kohler, called Rappahannock “a last bastion of peace and quiet, probably on the East Coast right now, and needs to be protected.” He said he would foward to the commissions his suggestions for additions and modifications to the comp plan’s Chapter 6 — in which the county elaborates on what it believes are the important characteristics and trends to be preserved and encouraged in coming years.

Clyde Scott, a Flint Hill resident for 31 years, rose to say he had “just three words” for the commission. “Leave it alone,” he said, and added after a pause: “Rappahannock County is just fine the way it is.”

Rappahannock Historical Society director Judy Tole suggested that encouraging tourism and visitors be a priority in the comp plan, and also promised she would email her specific suggestions “that tourism be more than tourism with a small ‘t’.”

Cynthia Price suggested the comprehensive plan could be modified to allow technology that will not “pollute Rappahannock County” — as she said cellular towers and wireless broadband transceivers do, with electromagnetic radiation “that harm humans, animals and the environment.”

Ron Makela of Amissville said: “I was going through Chapter 6 today, and it references many different things, agriculture, viewsheds, all this stuff — but people are never mentioned. I think that’s something that needs to be incorporated. I’m aware of something that has to do with a noise ordinance, but it’s really has to do with living with your neighbors, and perhaps a conflict between commercial and residential.

“I think if the comprehensive plan referenced this — dark skies, or no noise — as one of the assets of this county to be preserved, that would be a good idea,” he said.

John Tole of Woodville pointed out that a huge percentage of the county’s revenue came from property taxes; tourism-related revenue, he noted, is a comparatively tiny part of the county’s income. “There’s a tension building,” he said, among those whose property taxes will begin to rise so much that “a decision needs to be made about whether they can stay here.” He suggested the comp plan encourage “the kind of low-impact businesses” that would broaden the county’s tax-revenue base.

“I’m originally from Montana,” said Stanley Reynolds of Flint Hill, “where there’s fewer people than live here.” That got a laugh. Reynolds said he first bought property in Rappahannock in the 1960s, after looking at Fauquier, Loudoun and other nearby places and judging that those places, unlike Rappahannock, “would probably not stay the way they were.” Aside from improving technology, he said, “I don’t think we should do a lot to bring more people to Rappahannock. More people means more government.”

The tourist home and the neighbors

After a lengthy public hearing and many comments and questions from commissioners, the planners voted to table the permit application from Desmond and Heidi Dodd, who own and have recently renovated a cottage on the unpaved stretch of road where Harris Hollow Road becomes Gid Brown Hollow Road.

At the meeting, several neighbors alleged the cottage had been rented without the tourist-home permit — or even a certificate of occupancy, according to one of them, since the final inspection was expected only later last week. Others, including several commissioners, objected to safety concerns at the site, which is just 20 feet from a steep-sided stretch of road that’s just 12 feet wide.

Though it first attempted to pass a motion to approve the permit — and thus send it on to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which was meeting the following night, Thursday, to consider it — the commission found itself with a three-way tie on that motion, when commissioner Raymond Brown said, “I don’t think I want to vote either way.”

A subsequent motion to table the matter was unanimously approved. But BZA member David Konick, who had attended the planning commission meeting, made his own motion the following night that the zoning board consider the matter and not table it (as the Dodds had since requested in an email). Unlike the recommendation-only commission, the BZA is a court-appointed legal body and doesn’t need to wait for, or follow, any planning commission recommendations.

Konick’s motion, after a lengthy discussion among the BZA’s members on Thursday night, died for lack of a second.

The Dodds had asked in their email that the matter be considered by both bodies in January, when it’s expected they’ll be back in the U.S.

The commission had received a letter from some of the Dodds’ neighbors in which they suggested that conditions be placed on the permit’s approval, including limiting renters of the cottage to eight, that open fires not be permitted, that an annual septic system inspection be ordered and an annual review of the permit be made. The letter was signed by six neighboring property owners, including Sean and Debbie Knick, Rick Katos, Marian and Andy Bragg and Susan and Keir Whitson.

The Dodds are living in South Africa now but hope (according to real estate agent Kaye Kohler, there to represent them) to make Washington D.C. their “home base” soon, with the cottage a summer/weekend place they hoped to rent out when they weren’t using it. They were contacted about the neighbors’ concerns by phone earlier in the week by Keir Whitson, according to Sean Knick.

Knick told the commissioners that Dodd’s reaction to their letter was to say that “if the planning commission didn’t approve the permit Wednesday night, that would be the last conversation he would have with us as neighbors.” Whitson, called away on business, wasn’t at the planning commission meeting, but Knick said the neighbors who’d written the letter felt “belittled” by Dodd’s comment to Whitson.

“We made, in our letter, no comments that we were against his tourist home,” said Knick. “We only asked that some stipulations be put on them, due to the environment and the surrounding properties, which are in agriculture and conservation.”

Knick said he and other neighbors were bothered by the Dodds’ “attitude” — “if they are going to be renting this place before it was approved by this commission and this county, and this is the attitude we are going to have to deal with for years to come . . .”

Dodd had shown “an utter disregard for the way of rural life,” said neighbor Rick Katos, whose property is next door. “He tried to get this tourist business to fly under the radar, until it was discovered that he was doing it, and then he made an application [for a tourist-home permit]” said Katos. “They had people renting that house on the weekends — they had a bonfire last weekend. A bonfire, an open fire. Two miles away is the park boundary, where there is a long-standing rules against open fires.

“Had he handled this differently, I’m sure we could have made a friendly compromise, and we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Katos said.

The Hampton district’s Alvin Henry was among the most vigorously opposed to the Dodd application, objecting at first to the Dodds’ “expecting the county to make their business plan possible,” and later to safety concerns for visitors and their pets and children, who are unfamiliar with the road, which is paved on its Harris Hollow section but turns to gravel before the cottage driveway, which is just beyond a blind hill.

“Isn’t this typical of other tourist homes?” Kohler asked.

“No it’s not,” Henry said. “Other tourist homes have been something maybe further off the road, on much larger pieces of property, and people who have used their tourist home to create a little more income — but this is someone wanting to rent it out nine months out of the year, and only be there three months?

“Not everything works in every location,” Henry said.

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