In the end, practicality beat out romance.
Facing an audience of more than three dozen Monday night — most of whom applauded the 15 citizens who spoke out against the first plan to build a cellular monopole in the county in a decade — the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors shook its collective head, and then voted 4-1 to approve AT&T’s proposal.
The plan to build a 199-foot monopole near Round Hill Road off U.S. 522 in Boston is the first of five proposed installations by AT&T — including two other new, 190-foot-plus poles just west of Sperryville and at the high school, and two proposals to extend existing Sprint towers at Ben Venue and Amissville to almost the same height.
The Sperryville and high school proposals come Jan. 19 before the planning commission — meeting at the high school auditorium, not the courthouse — which will, as with the first project, pass its recommendation on to the supervisors. The planning commission voted unanimously last month to recommend the supervisors approve the Boston tower.
Piedmont District Supervisor Mike Biniek, who cast the sole vote against AT&T’s plan Monday, had earlier in the meeting expressed mixed feelings about the project.
“This coverage map shows a lot of white areas [no signal],” Biniek said to AT&T site acquisition specialist Ed Donohue before the public hearing began. “All my neighbors are very disappointed being in the middle of this big dead zone — and that includes my wife.”
To Biniek’s question on whether AT&T had plans to build towers down the F.T. Valley Road corridor, or in northern Madison County, Donohue said he didn’t know, but he would find out. Donohue has said that if all five projects are approved, AT&T would provide “robust” service to 45 percent of county’s residents. (Since there are only about 7,000 of those, it’s no surprise that AT&T’s plan would provide cell signals to a much higher percentage of those passing through the county on U.S. routes 211 and 522.)
Later, Biniek said, though he knew the vote before the board was specifically on the Boston tower, he didn’t think AT&T’s overall plan was “comprehensive” enough, and couldn’t support it.
“Also, I think 199 feet is not always an appropriate height for our viewshed,” he said.
The words “viewshed” and “comprehensive” — as in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the blueprint for the zoning ordinance under which AT&T’s applications are being considered — came up often in the under-three-minute speeches given by others who stood up during the public hearing.
Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) president Rick Kohler addressed the supervisors at their 2 p.m. meeting to repeat what he’d said to the planning commission last month — that the Boston tower’s height and placement violated the comprehensive plan’s intent to protect the county’s scenic and historical assets.
At the supervisors’ 7 p.m. public hearing, Piedmont Environmental Council representative Don Loock again urged the county to consider asking for more towers at lower heights, and he and former RLEP president Monica Worth both urged the supervisors to negotiate with AT&T “rather than just accept their plan.”
“We represent a hole in a major metropolitan area’s coverage map,” Worth said. “I find it hard to believe a company like AT&T would engage a lawyer and an engineer and others on this project if there was no Plan B.”
Flint Hill resident Ron Maxwell stressed the safety risks associated with cell phone usage — and especially texting — while driving, adding: “We all have cell phones, and we use them everywhere else. Rappahannock is the one safe place we can come home to. I don’t think the board would vote to increase drunk driving deaths by 20 to 30 percent.”
Kay Wilson stood to tell a story about out-of-state visitors who showed up in “shiny black cars and silk suits” in Little Washington for a friend’s concert and then spoke to each other loudly in the Theatre audience to confirm to each other that their cell phones didn’t work.
“And someone local, in the back of the theatre, said, ‘That’s because you’re in Rappahannock County. Cell phones don’t work here. And that’s the way we like it.’ ”
That got the meeting’s loudest round of applause.
Supervisors Chris Parrish and Ron Frazier, who moved and seconded the resolution to approve AT&T’s plan, each mentioned that they had heard from many of their district’s constituents who urged them to approve AT&T’s plans. Frazier added: “Although I don’t see many of them here tonight . . .”
Frazier is the supervisors’ representative to the planning commission, whose two meetings on the first AT&T cell proposal were attended by a public contingent about evenly divided between support and opposition.
One resident told the supervisors “I want us to shake our heads a bit about the Wal-Marting of America.” Another, builder Scott McBride, said “I didn’t grow up in Rappahannock County, I came here — from a very ugly place.
“This [application by AT&T] is the thin edge of the wedge,” he said. “I say if a finger can be put in the dike anywhere, put it in the dike here.”
Bill Fletcher of Sperryville also cited the dangers of texting and calling while driving, and warned the supervisors that, as the value of agricultural land decreases, “the only real value of this land in Rappahannock is its scenic value, and if you destroy that viewshed, you’re potentially destroying millions of dollars of value, considering what people are paying to move here nowadays.”
Harold Beebout of Sperryville spoke, as several did, on the opposite danger — of not being able to make emergency calls.
Washington resident Demaris Miller mentioned the safety issues as well, and urged the supervisors to accept AT&T’s plan. “I hope we will not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” she said.
“Also, it’s entirely possible that 20 years from now, we won’t even need these poles — so if the technology changes, these poles would disappear.”
After the public hearing, both McCarthy and county attorney Peter Luke pointed out that federal laws prevent any legislative body from “outlawing cell service because we think people will be hurt if they make cell calls while driving — or because we just don’t like cell phones.”
“We don’t need to focus the debate on, ‘No cell towers in Rappahannock County,’” Luke said. “Federal law says you cannot ban them. You don’t want to go there.”
Luke said the supervisors were likewise unable to force cell carriers to build additional infrastructure — in response to Biniek’s question whether the supervisors could approve the Boston tower contingent on AT&T adding more service in the southwesternmost part of the county.
The supervisors, with Bryant Lee and chairman Roger Welch adding their votes, approved the Boston tower on the conditions that AT&T add a fire-and-rescue antenna to it, if needed; that if future laws require towers under 200 feet to have warning lights, AT&T would lower the tower height or make whatever changes would result in no lights; and that the monopole be painted to blend in with the forest cover and/or sky.
“Frankly,” Welch said just before the vote, “I don’t think we can stick our heads in the sand any longer . . .
“No one wants to ruin the viewshed. I was born and raised here, too, and no one appreciates the viewshed here more than I do.”
“Ten years ago,” said Parrish, “I was sitting where you’re sitting now, and pretty much saying the same things you all are saying tonight.
“We have cell service in the county, thanks to Sprint,” he said. “But in part because of changes requested of them, my part of the county got neglected. I have received numerous calls in support of this tower.”