County: No cell provider, no lease

After a closed session following its regular monthly public meeting Monday afternoon, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors decided to require the cell-tower company with which it’s been negotiating a potential lease of county-owned land to have at least one cellular service provider under contract.

Without a commitment from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or another carrier to place its antennas on the tower, said County Administrator John McCarthy by phone after the closed session, the supervisors won’t consider any lease to Community Wireless Services (CWS).

CWS is the same Arlington company whose proposal to erect a monopole at Rappahannock County High School was rejected in January by a school board under fire by some for its transparency — or lack of it, according to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act-related lawsuit filed last year by Sperryville resident Eric Tollefson — and by others for supposedly ignoring students’ and teachers’ safety by locating the tower too close to the school. Others just called the contract between the school board and CWS a “bad deal.”

McCarthy wouldn’t further discuss the negotiations, which he described as continuing, but sources said CWS did not appear to be open to any restrictions based on signed contracts with cell providers — a requirement that is, incidentally, built into the county’s permitting process.

Last month, McCarthy said the properties under discussion included several owned by the county
“between Schoolhouse Road in the east and Rediviva Bridge to the west,” including the site of the Flatwood recycling center on Rock Mills Road, not far from the high school and elementary school properties.

At that time, CWS spokesman Thomas “Tam” Murphy also said he didn’t foresee difficulty in finding wireless carriers to lease space on any facility in Rappahannock County.

In recent years, construction of transmission facilities is increasingly left by the major cell carriers to such subcontractors as CWS —which is not a carrier itself, but builds such facilities and rents antenna space to the biggest four or five wireless carriers, Murphy said last month, mentioning AT&T and Verizon as the “most active carriers.”

Some of these contractors seek approvals and permits for sites and then act as “aggregators,” selling packages of approved-facility deals in much the same way mortgage debts are bought and sold in the financial market.

Meanwhile, three years after AT&T abandoned approved permits to build cell towers in Sperryville, on U.S. 522 near Boston and near the high school, anecdotal evidence and Sprint’s coverage maps show that only about 40 percent of the county’s homes and businesses can get wireless coverage  (Sprint being the only major wireless carrier with existing towers in Rappahannock).

The supervisors’ decision came on the eve of a Community Broadband Forum (scheduled for Wednesday night at the high school, after this edition went to press). According to Murphy, nowadays only about 10 percent of wireless traffic is used for voice calls; the other 90 percent is data traffic, and the broadband portion continues to grow.

Murphy said last month that CWS is also pursuing private tower leases in Sperryville (at the same Woodward Road location approved for AT&T) and in Castleton.

The board heard sparse but vocal opposition to the possibility of leasing any of its properties to cell providers or tower-builders during the public comment session, from Woodville resident Cynthia Price, who accused the board of making “secret” deals — and in a 12-page letter to the supervisors from Sue Luthi, who lives across Woodward Road from the Sperryville site that CWS said it was pursuing.

In her letter, Luthi said the county would be “sacrificing” her and her family’s health and well-being just to provide cell coverage, and urged the supervisors to first establish safety standards based on the effects of cell-facility radio emissions.

As McCarthy and others have pointed out at earlier hearings in Rappahannock on AT&T and CWS proposals, such action by a local jurisdiction is not permitted by federal communication laws, which presume that cellular technology is safe and necessary.

Keyser named deputy administrator

© Hagerstown Herald-Mail
© Hagerstown Herald-Mail

The board voted unanimously to approve McCarthy’s recommendation to upgrade assistant county administrator Deborah Keyser’s position to deputy county administrator — a distinction that allows her to legally act for McCarthy in any of his official capacities (as zoning administrator, subdivision administrator and purchasing agent), and also means a salary increase from $50,000 to $85,000.

McCarthy has acknowledged in recent months — or since shortly after hiring Keyser, a Rappahannock native who had been serving as county administrator of Jefferson County, W.Va. — that he sees Keyser as his eventual replacement. Though his current contract with the county runs through next June, and McCarthy’s official response is that he expects to serve out the contract, he’s not made any secret that he’s “painfully aware” of the perception that the county is now paying for two executives with similar duties and relatively high salaries. (McCarthy’s current salary is $160,000.)

After the board’s vote, McCarthy, who’s been county administrator for about 30 years, looked over at Keyser and congratulated her — but with a rising inflection at the end of the word, making it a question: “Congratulations?”

‘Refund’ to pay for RCES portico

Also at Monday’s meeting, the supervisors voted 4-1, with Stonewall-Hawthorne representative Chris Parrish voting no, to return to the public school division a refund of $83,392 (funds returned to the county in 2014 on a refinanced school-related bond issue from 2004). The refund, requested officially last week by superintendent Donna Matthews but discussed over the past several months by the school board, will pay for construction of a security portico at Rappahannock County Elementary School.

Matthews told the board the project would cost about $18,000 less than the refund, and the board requested that the remaining funds be spent on maintenance. A similar portico project at the high school was planned but postponed due to the expense.

Parrish, who voted against it without comment, said later he believes security and safety of students is a “priority,” but did not think the portico would make the school any safer from “anyone who really wanted to get in the school for whatever reason.” He said the money should be spent on “education first, and other physical improvements — especially the windows at the elementary school.”

“They also already committed to a contract to have the work done,” he said, “and this was a request for the funds from the supervisors — we didn’t have to approve it. That kinda bothered me.”

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.