Homeowners sue Piedmont Broadband, allege destruction and trespassing
In the complex world of internet service in Rappahannock County, many residents not served by cable or satellite receive broadband transmissions through providers such as Amissville-based Piedmont Broadband. These providers use line of sight radio transmissions that require equipment to be installed and operated from hilltops around the county. From these access points, radio transmissions bounce into hollows and other lower areas, allowing internet connections.
Now the homeowners of one of these hilltop access points are suing Piedmont Broadband (PBB) for exceeding the terms of its lease. Ron Maxwell and his wife Karen Hochstetter, who live at the top of Fogg Mountain off Ben Venue Road, filed a complaint in January, charging Piedmont and its owner, Richard Shoemaker, with destroying trees and installing multiple pieces of equipment in areas not specified in the lease. They ask the court to allow them to terminate the lease — established in 2007 and renewable every five years. When the lease came up for renewal in 2017, Maxwell refused to renew.
“Once I decided not to renew,” said Maxwell during an interview at his home Wednesday, “I asked [Shoemaker] how much time he would need [to remove his equipment and find other arrangements]. He never answered me.”
Maxwell and Hochstetter filed a separate Motion of Preliminary Injunction in February, when Shoemaker continued to conduct his business on Maxwell’s property after having been served with the January suit.
According to the original complaint, Maxwell and Hochstetter entered into a lease agreement in 2007 with Tom Gordon, owner of broadband provider, eOffice Brands. Subsequently, eOffice sold the business to PBB, which became the tenant under the lease.
Under the terms of that lease, the tenant would erect a single wooden pole “and use existing housing structures for the purposes of placing, operating, and maintaining the . . . telecommunications equipment” that would deliver wireless access to the internet.
A wooden pole was never erected on the property. Instead, reads the complaint, PBB “has used Plaintiffs’ trees and buildings to install equipment and wires over the years. This use has increasingly involved cutting branches and otherwise pruning . . . trees to accommodate PBB’s needs.”
Broadband transmissions require unobstructed views between access points. As trees grow and leaf out, they can begin to interfere with transmissions. Piedmont, which has served Rappahannock County and parts of Fauquier since 2008, addresses the issue on its website: “The equipment we use is line of sight based, and due to the terrain in the area we operate, we’ve had to adapt and create unique solutions to meet the needs of our clients.”
Maxwell and Hochstetter also charge that, despite the expectation that PBB would not need to enter the property more than about every 30 days, “PBB’s employees come on the property several times each month and sometimes several times during a given week,” according to the complaint, and are sometimes on the property “from early morning until dusk.”
“Since Piedmont took over, they have placed dozens of receivers and transmitters around my property,” Maxwell said. “They have become increasingly invasive. They are here 52 weeks of the year, their people shouting to be heard as they work in the trees and [are] disruptive to the peace and quiet of the property.”
The complaint also asserts that the lease is “uncertain and vague,” rendering it unenforceable, and asks the court to require PBB “to remove all equipment and return Plaintiff’s land to its former condition.”
Further, the complaint also cites research into the possible health risks associated with radiofrequency (RF) emissions coming from the equipment mounted on Maxwell’s house.
Maxwell and Hochstetter are asking that PBB pay damages of $49,999.
The February request for injunction charges that despite the January complaint, PBB has “continued to come on Plaintiffs’ property and install and work on equipment and prune . . . trees without giving prior notice or receiving approval of the pruning in advance.”
In a phone call Tuesday, Shoemaker declined to comment. Shoemaker’s attorney Mike Brown said in an email Tuesday, “Other than to say that we contend the assertions in Mr. Maxwell’s complaint are without merit, I have no further comment.” Maxwell’s attorney, Ann Callaway, said in a message Wednesday that she did not wish to comment until she had a chance to confer with her client.
The parties will meet in Rappahannock County Circuit Court on March 15 for a pretrial motion.
In the meantime, Maxwell feels his neighbors should know about the suit.
“It’s not fair to [Shoemaker’s] customers to be kept in the dark,” he said.