After a final balloon test this weekend, the cell phone tower permit process moves into the hands of county supervisors March 7.
The County Planning Commission voted last Wednesday night (Feb. 16) to recommend approval of the last two facilities in AT&T’s five-project plan to offer coverage to an estimated 45 percent of county residents by building three new monopoles and extending two existing Sprint poles.
The vote was unanimous for the plan to extend the Sprint monopole behind the Amissville fire hall to 198 feet from 170, and with one nay vote (from Stonewall-Hawthorne commissioner Gary Light) on the extension of an 80-foot Sprint pole at Ben Venue to 144 feet.
The decisions were made before a sparse crowd among which as many supporters spoke as opponents.
At its March 7 evening meeting, the board of supervisors will also consider AT&T’s plan to erect a 199-foot pole near the county high school, a matter tabled Feb. 7 when AT&T proposed moving the facility farther from the high school and U.S. 211 than it first proposed.
A balloon test for the adjusted high school site is scheduled for 8 to 10 a.m. this Saturday (Feb. 26).
The supervisors have already approved 199-foot AT&T monopoles off U.S. 522 in Boston and off Woodward Road in Sperryville. All five applications for special cellular-facility permits under the county’s zoning ordinance, which allow cellular towers up to 200 feet, were filed in October.
The commission’s public hearing was held at the high school auditorium. Though earlier planning commission hearings and supervisor meetings have brought out up to 50 citizens, last week’s attracted just a handful.
From the photos and coverage maps presented by AT&T representative Edward L. Donohue last Wednesday, based on balloon tests conducted Feb. 5, the extended Ben Venue pole remains hard to spot against the mountain behind it when viewed from the corner of Route 729 and U.S. 211. Set back on a nearly 2,000-acre tract, it is visible, however, from farther north on Ben Venue Road, and from several points east and west on U.S. 211.
Donohue said the Ben Venue facility would connect the proposed pole at the high school with the extended pole at Amissville, which is 665 feet from U.S. 211 directly behind Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue’s cinder-block headquarters.
Donohue said AT&T engineers decided that co-locating on either of the two existing Sprint poles between Ben Venue and the high school, each hidden inside a working silo, “just didn’t work” for the proposed network plan. Coverage maps submitted last week — which had yet not been updated to reflect AT&T’s proposed move of the high school tower — actually show spotty coverage in the town of Washington proper, though estimated signal strength along U.S. highways 211 and 522 appeared consistent through most of Rappahannock County.
Only six people rose to speak during the public comment period, including longtime Flint Hill innkeeper and Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) founder Phil Irwin, who urged, as he has at every recent hearing for AT&T’s proposals, that the plan be rejected.
“Under this plan, over 50 percent of the county will not be covered,” said Irwin, adding that the estimated coverage was not sufficient — but was probably enough to make it unprofitable for other cellular carriers to bring their business here. “If you take these proposals as presented,” Irwin said, “no other company will be willing to come in here and fill in the blanks.”
Piedmont Environmental Council representative and county resident Don Loock urged the commissioners to weigh the towers’ impact on scenic values against the net gain of cell coverage — Sprint’s current coverage estimated at 35 percent vs. AT&T’s 45 percent, and much of the coverage areas overlap. “That’s really not much additional coverage,” he said.
Two longtime residents who live within sight of the Amissville tower were among the three who spoke in favor of the projects. “The Amissville tower is right beside us,” said Elizabeth Streagle. “We believe it should be extended, and we hope for as much coverage for the entire county as is possible.”
Said James B. “Bobby” Carter, who lives across the highway from the Amissville fire hall, in urging the commissioners to approve the extensions for public-safety reasons along the county’s highways: “If either one of these towers saves one life, it will be worth it.
“When you come up here and oppose these towers for reasons of the scenic view, and then you have Sprint [a decade ago] build these silos — that’s not scenic,” Carter said. “Rappahannock County never had silos near that size.” The county’s working silos were less than half the height of Sprint’s disguised poles at Massies Corner and further west, Carter said. A real Rappahannock silo “would have a tree growing out of the top,” he said.
“Whatever few more people this will help,” Carter said, “that’s a help we need.”
The commissioners themselves had relatively few questions or comments for the AT&T representatives.
“There was a comment made earlier that this commission is doing a disservice to the county, and I beg to differ,” said commissioner Gary Settle. “I think we are doing a good service. The reality is, we need to move forward . . . I think we have asked the right questions, and most of all we have followed the [zoning] ordinance.”
“I don’t usually like to talk about my professional life in this setting,” said Settle, a former county sheriff who is a Virginia State Police captain heading the Culpeper division’s criminal investigations unit. “But I spent some time at the scene of a triple homicide in Madison County earlier this week . . . and I can tell you, cell phones made a difference.” A suspect in that case was arrested at a motel in Norfolk on the night after the murders.
Light said he had “real concerns” about the Ben Venue site, primarily because he felt AT&T had not done enough to mitigate the pole’s effect on the surrounding viewshed. He said AT&T’s simulated photos, based on the Feb. 5 balloon test, “failed to show the areas most impacted by this.”
The planning commission approved the two extensions with the same conditions of AT&T’s earlier projects: that they never require lighting (if there are future changes to Federal Aviation Administration rules, which do not generally require warning lights on towers under 200 feet, the poles will be altered); that they use smaller eight-foot triangular antenna platforms rather than the standard 12-foot platforms; that they be painted to blend in with surroundings; and that county emergency services be offered a slot for an antenna, if needed.
The supervisors’ March 7 meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the Rappahannock County High School auditorium.