By Anita L. Sherman
According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of American adults own a cell phone. Seventy-three percent own a desktop or laptop. Sixty-eight percent own smartphones and 45 percent own tablet computers.
For many smartphone users, this is their entry into the online world, particularly if they do not have broadband coverage.
All of these devices require service and source options can be hard-wired cable systems, fiber optics, satellite dishes or cell towers.
Whether you object to its height, its lights, its radio waves or its distance from a scenic byway, a proposed cell tower for the Boston area got the green light last week.
Those living near or in the current “dead zone” applauded the county’s direction to provide cellular and broadband coverage for safety, education and economic development reasons.
The Culpeper County Planning Commission by a 7-0 vote (two were absent) approved an application from Community Wireless Structures (CWS) VII LLC to construct a 250-foot lattice telecommunications tower adjacent to U.S. 522 (Sperryville Pike) near the town of Boston. The land, currently undeveloped and owned by Anderson and Sons Builders Inc., consists of 10.7 acres. The tower would be designed to accommodate the equipment and antennas of at least four wireless service providers (but could go as high as six) and would be located in a 50-by-100-foot compound surrounded by an eight-foot high chain link fence.
Hope McCrary, a spokesperson for CWS, encouraged the planning commission to approve their application. The company has constructed some 51 towers in Virginia with three structures built in Culpeper along Route 29. With the closest county-owned tower near Cherry Hill Road, some five miles from this area, McCrary stressed that this is an under-served area for cellular and broadband service.
According to FAA regulations, any tower over 200 feet requires a medium-intensity dual lighting system for safety reasons. White lights during the day and red pulsing lights at night. McCrary felt that the impact of the lights would be minimal. She also said that traffic, once the tower was constructed, would also be light. She said that the height of the tower was dictated by the topography and the needs of potential providers to be able to adequately provide service.
Designed with breakpoint technology, should the tower collapse it would collapse into itself and within the designated parcel.
“There’s not too much argument that there is a need for service,” said McCrary. “We believe this is a suitable location based on topography, it’s near an existing power line, it’s a reasonable distance from Route 522, it’s utilizing private dollars, it has the support of the county staff, it’s supported by a third party consultant, it’s been cleared through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, it would be good for business and it would enhance the overall quality of life.”
McCrary specifically mentioned Virginia Broadband as one provider who has expressed interest in locating on the tower. “They’d like to locate on this facility,” said McCrary, “and their propagation maps would indicate that they could cover a 3-mile radius around the tower. There are close to 500 residences in this area. Verizon Wireless and AT&T have also expressed interest.”
More than a dozen voiced their opinion at the public hearing held on Wednesday, Oct.12, which lasted several hours.
Bob Hudson, who lives in the Salem District, is not against cell service for western Culpeper. In fact, he feels it’s a good idea. The application, however, feel short in his mind. “If you had to grade this application, it would flunk, there’s been a fumble, a number of assertions are incorrect, the idea is good but execution is not, I’d recommend denial,” said Hudson who is particularly concerned that, in his estimation, people living closest to the proposed tower were not notified and then there are those lights…”the best I could ask for…kill any illumination.”
John Feeney, who lives on Stillhouse Road in Boston, echoed similar sentiments. He moved to the county in the early ’80s and built a home with a clear view of Old Rag Mountain.
“Then I learn that plans are afoot to build a mini-eiffel tower…a direct line between my house and my view of Old Rag mountain…I’ve invested my life savings to build an addition to the house…this tower would amount to a personal tragedy, a death in the family,” said Feeney, who like Hudson, believed that folks living the closest were not notified of these plans. He questioned whether this “gigantic” tower was worth the destruction to the landscape and impact on tourism. He encouraged the commission to look at other alternatives.
But, for Mike Murphy, who can’t make a cell phone call from where he lives, he welcomes service. “It’s worse for my children,” said Murphy stressing that the commission weigh the risks and rewards and think about education, life safety and economic development.
Gary Wilson offered part of his 80 acres for the cell tower if the proposed location didn’t meet muster.
“I’m up the road from where this tower is going to be,” said Wilson, “I’m here for one reason…to make this point..that it’s a personal safety issue for me. I’m 78 and have no cell service. If there’s a big storm, power goes out, medical emergency, we’ve got no cell service. Sometimes you have to weigh the public good.”
While CWS has built 195-foot towers in other Virginia counties; their proposed 250 foot tower is what potential provider Virginia Broadband wanted to hear.
“Cellular travels about two miles before interference…distance is relative to the tower…199 feet versus 250…height is always our friend,” said Joe Lenig, who serves as director of marketing and sales for Virginia Broadband. Lenig referenced his attendance at a similar meeting in Rappahannock County where lives were being dramatically affected by not having coverage.
“We need these towers, we need tall structures, we support this tower.”
Dan Holmes, who works at the Piedmont Environmental Council, is not opposed to a cell tower but his recommendation is that they investigate smaller ones. “Can we achieve coverage without the lights?” asked Holmes, who is also concerned that a waiver would be necessary since the site is less than a mile from a scenic highway (Route 522).
“Not one life should be jeopardized by lack of technology,” said Eric Fritz who lives in the Salem District. “This is not about personal issues, it’s about the safety of the county’s constituents and offering a communications safety blanket.”
“I think it’s a travesty,” said Michelle North, who sits on the county’s school board and is also a member of the broadband committee, “that we live 60 miles from Washington, D.C. and don’t have service…this impacts our K-12 students.”
North encouraged members of the commission to visit the parking lots of the library or fast food restaurants and see the number of parents waiting in cars so that their children can have access to Internet.
“If Culpeper doesn’t step up, we’ll be left in the shadows, we are behind, we need to enhance…this isn’t a luxury, but a requirement in today’s world.”
Cynthia Price is proud to live in a dead zone. Her concern is health and the effect of radiation. Living right across the county line, Price would rather have clean air and live in an area devoid of towers which she believes are dangerous and a possible source of brain cancer.
With the planning commission’s recommendation for approval, the final decision now rests in the hands of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors.