The Rappahannock County Planning Commission last Wednesday 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 attending the meeting had spoken. They were evenly divided between those who urged the commission to approve the application and those who thought it should seek alternatives. The vote 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 two more new towers in Sperryville and at the high school.
The commissioners listened as six audience members spoke in favor of the tower, and another six urged them to reject or delay the application.
There were concerns on both sides about safety — those in favor of more cell coverage citing incidents where emergency calls could not be made, those opposed citing the rising percentage of serious traffic accidents caused by drivers talking or texting behind the wheel.
The issue most discussed, by those in the audience as well as the commissioners, was whether 199-foot monopoles — which is what AT&T proposes to build or extend existing towers to — are compatible with a comprehensive zoning plan that emphasizes scenic value and the county’s “viewshed” as assets to be protected.
“There are alternatives to 199-foot towers,” said Monica Worth, a Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection member and former president of the group, after current president Rick Kohler had read aloud the resolution the group passed earlier in the week opposing the tower on the grounds that it violated the intent and terms of the comprehensive plan.
“We are calling for the county to have a plan and a policy for the best possible coverage for the whole county,” she said later. “We are not opposed to cell coverage per se. We are asking the commissioners to consider this application, and the ones to follow, in light of such a policy.”
Both Worth and Don Loock, local conservation officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, cited such policies in other jurisdictions, including Albemarle County, which would make it easier for cell companies to gain approval of more numerous but less tall transmission towers.
Ron Frazier, the board of supervisors’ representative to the planning commission, and County Administrator John W. McCarthy, both spoke after the public-comment portion of the meeting about the essential differences between Rappahannock and a county such as Albemarle, which has 10 times the population of 7,000-person Rappahannock, and is crossed by both I-64 and U.S. 29.
“Albemarle’s population per square mile is pushing 120, while Rappahannock’s is sixth-lowest in the state, at 26,” McCarthy said.
“And unlike most other counties, where there’s a county seat that has a high population concentration,” he said, “Rappahannock is also way more spread out. In our case, we have 195 people in Washington, and that’s if no one’s been taken off to the hospital tonight.”
The prime issue remained the tower’s height, and its relative affront to scenic values — and some complained that the planning commission had not asked AT&T to consider any alternative to the 199-foot tower in Boston.
“We asked them last month to come back this month with a report on how lowering the tower to 175 would affect their coverage,” McCarthy said in response to one such complain. (AT&T’s report was that the lower height would mean dead zones between the Boston tower and an existing tower near the Culpeper County landfill, and the tower it plans to erect in Sperryville.
To those who suggested the county make counter-proposals to AT&T — and future cell providers — McCarthy pointed out that it has, in effect, been doing that ever since it forced Sprint a decade ago to alter its plans for 199-foot towers and instead put up shorter towers.
“Saying we want smaller towers is what we’ve been saying for 10 years,” he said. “And no one’s taken us up on it.
“This is a risk,” he said just before the commissioners’ roll-call vote to pass the proposal on to the supervisors with a recommendation it be approved. “But it’s one we should make based on experience, rather than ambitions or ideals.”