Planners say yes to first AT&T tower

Editor’s Note: Look for more in-depth coverage from Wednesday night’s planning commission in this story from the Dec. 23 Rappahannock News. This is an updated version of our Dec. 16 news analysis of the issues and community conversation around AT&T’s cell-tower proposals, including a sampling of comments from Rappnet.

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission Wednesday night unanimously voted to recommend approval of AT&T’s application for the first of five proposed cell towers in the county.

The matter will come before the board of supervisors for a final vote at its Jan. 3 meeting.

The vote Wednesday night came after roughly half of the two dozen citizens who attending the meeting had spoken — evenly divided between those who urged the commission to approve the application and those who thought it should seek alternatives. It allowed the cell provider to move forward on its plans to erect a 199-foot monopole near U.S. 522 in Boston.

The commission expects to consider in January and February AT&T’s applications to extend two existing Sprint towers in Ben Venue and Amissville, and to build built two more new towers in Sperryville and at the high school.

The run-up to Wednesday’s commission meeting at the courthouse sparked the revival of an old debate: Are cell towers — at a height generally twice that of the towers erected here a decade ago by Sprint — compatible with the county’s tradition of zealously protecting its scenic “viewsheds” and agricultural nature?

This week, the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) passed a resolution encouraging the planning commission to recommend against the application (the planners only make recommendations to the supervisors, who ultimately decide). Too high, it said. The RLEP’s Rick Kohler read the resolution aloud at Wednesday night’s meeting.

Also this week, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) sent out an email newsletter suggesting interested parties attend Wednesday’s planning commission meeting, and recommending alternatives to the five proposed 199-foot towers. (Towers over 200 feet are likely to require warning lights and support cables.) The mailing cited one possible alternative — shorter towers, more of them — that was successfully negotiated with cell providers in Albemarle County.

Detail from an AT&T mockup, based on a balloon test, of what the planned Boston tower would look like from 400 feet away.

Albemarle County, crossed by six to eight lanes of U.S. 29 and four lanes of I-64, has a population density of about 115 people per square mile. Rappahannock County, with an intersection of two-lane U.S. 522 and two- to four-lane U.S. 211, has a population density of 26 per square mile — sixth lowest among Virginia’s 93 counties.

AT&T representatives at last month’s planning commission meeting conspicuously failed to deny that the company’s higher priority is cell phone traffic passing through the county, as some at that meeting suggested.

Proponents of increased cell coverage have cited safety and the possibilities cell towers bring for increased broadband coverage — either directly through the wireless carriers or by the sharing possibilities their taller towers offer to companies such as Piedmont Broadband and Virginia Broadband, each of which currently has several hundred wireless-DSL customers in the county situated within reach of both companies’ more or less line-of-sight signals.

Opponents to the AT&T plan also cite safety — the fact that mobile phones and texting account for an ever-increasing percentage of serious traffic accidents — and the impact higher cell towers would have on the county’s Comprehensive Code-ified concern about this area’s singular scenic value.

County residents have engaged in a vigorous debate on the cell phone issue the last few weeks, as evidenced by the letters to the editor in this newspaper, as well as the postings on Rappnet, an email list-serve with some 800 subscribers, most of whom live in the county or nearby (information at

The cell tower issue hasn’t much been on anyone’s radar since Sprint offered, a decade ago, to cover Rappahannock with wireless — and was compelled to make enough amendments to its original plan (including encasing several of its more visible towers in imitation grain silos) that, in the words of one official at last month’s planning commission meeting, “no one bothered asking us again for nearly 10 years.”

Excerpts from Rappnet posts on the cell tower issue can be found below. Names have been removed to protect the innocent, or guilty.

Gnats versus camels

“I’ve not kept up with all the posts but I’m wondering just how many of these monopoles we’re talking about. Driving along U.S. 211 through Amissville, there is a single monopole at the fire department which I guess is how I get cell service at the end of Route 643. I got to wondering how many utility poles I could see along the same stretch of road so I began counting. Having counted about 50 with no end in sight, I gave up the count. At the least, there are dozens if not hundreds. I’ve got to wonder if we might be choking on gnats and swallowing camels.

“I’ve been here for about 30 years or so and in that time, this county has probably changed more than any 30-year period since members of my family arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s. I can remember a time when folks milling about Elmer Jenkins’ garage and spitting tobacco were a lot more prevalent than those who sip wine at a couple nearby vineyards.
“So its a little hard to accept that a handful of 199-foot monopoles will forever destroy life as we know it.”

Smaller towers?

“Smaller monopoles or masts are viable alternatives both economically and for providing coverage. The evidence is provided by their use all over the country. The difference is the amount of financial return. Taller towers provide the tower companies with another profit center, i.e. a vast amount of vertical real estate to provide for other carriers. Smaller towers on the other hand are less intrusive and provide greater capacity than fewer taller towers. This does not mean that smaller towers are not lucrative investments for personal wireless providers it is just a matter of the degree of profitability.

“The proposal as it stands does not provide for either the greatest amount of service, or the least obtrusive design. What were are advocating for would provide the same coverage, the opportunity for greater capacity, and less obtrusive design; all of which could be achieved by locating a greater number of smaller tree top towers in the county.”

The haves versus have-nots?

“What happens when the trees grow above the towers you are proposing? Who will be paying for the court costs when you decide to take AT&T to court for them wanting to give some of us what we want? What is wrong with a company wanting to make a profit — is it un-American? Who is going to handle the ire of the community that wants this service when you chase away AT&T, as was done to Sprint? Is this ultimately a conversation of the haves versus the have-nots? I may be overreaching with that one, but had to ask.
“What part of the county do you live in? Do you have cell service?

“Again a conversation is being had, and appeals are being made on Rappnet, that are addressing an issue that affects the entire community, and not everyone is able to access this conversation, nor is everyone able to attend the Planning Commission meeting.”

Moving the goalposts

“. . . PEC is by definition funded by people who have enough money to give some of it away. The AT&T engineers proposed the height of this pole to be 199 feet, which is a height which requires no blinking light, thus mitigating the impact on the environment. But you would have them build a pole some 10 feet taller than the nearest tree — if that height was practical it would have been proposed by someone who understands cellular engineering. I would argue that the PEC is opposed to cell towers at any height and is just moving the goalpost to try to create controversy where there is none. Cell phones and broadband internet would allow people who have jobs to telecommute from home thus keeping them off the road and saving fossil fuel. That is a green way of looking at the issue.”

‘Stone age’ or . . . Gainesville?

“. . . Your claims as to what environmentalists are and want, and also that PEC is an elitist organization, take the all-time prize for pure cluelessness. If anything, PEC is the last hope for the little guy trying to save the home place from the pressures of developer greed. PEC is elite only in the sense that the staff is intelligent, effective and highly knowledgeable — in contrast to much that is propagated here and elsewhere.

“The claim that cellular service is needed to promote jobs and business is a scary proposition. Are you people doing business as you drive?

“There is an abundance of vacant local office space with good phone service and high-speed internet. The whole idea of telecommuting came about in the days before the cell phone became an obsession — and was based on the idea of the home office — with traditional landline phone service. How is it now become possible only with mobile phones? I have read all the arguments for better cell service offered here, some of them some mighty lame.

“ . . . in spite of the way some people are trying to present it, the issue is neither for or against cell service — but what it is going to look like and what kind of service is provided. A few giant towers are not going to provide equal coverage in the area they show on paper. And trying to beam all computer traffic thru a few nodes is only going to result in a jam-up.

There is plenty of oversight every time a new road is proposed. Does that mean people are opposed to roads? It means we have to carefully examine something we will have to live with for the foreseeable forever.

And get off the “Luddite,” “stone age” kick. Just how much of the brave new world do you want to have in Rappahannock? If the choice is between the “stone age” or Gainesville, which do you think would win out in a local (or any) referendum?

And finally . . .

“All of these Rappnet posts about the merits and demerits of the appearance of the proposed mobile phone towers in Rappahannock County reminds me of the statement that light travels faster than sound, which is why some people appear to be bright until you hear them speak.”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 545 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.