After it was approached by Shentel about providing a cell tower to remedy coverage weakness in the Crozet area, Milestone Communications of Reston has proposed to build a 145-foot tower on the northeast corner of the Western Albemarle High School football stadium. The tower would also offer an antenna location to three other cell phone services, possibly including Verizon and T-Mobile, as well as an array that would boost the signal of the Internet system of the high school. Milestone is also the builder of a 125-foot tower at Albemarle High School.
The Crozet Community Advisory Committee was introduced to the plan at its Dec. 19 meeting, which satisfied the proposal’s requirement for a public meeting. Lawyer Lori Schweller of the Charlottesville firm LeClairRyan made the presentation on behalf of Milestone, who was represented by senior project manager Cristian Hernandez. She said the company began building towers on school sites in Fairfax County and has so far built about 100 following that model. Shentel also sent a representative.
Shentel is a publicly traded telecommunications company based in Edinburg that now offers services in rural Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The company started in 1902 as an effort to get telephones in farmers’ homes in the Valley and with its acquisition of Ntelos in 2016 it became the sixth largest public wireless company in the country. It has a coverage gap locally in the vicinity of Yancey Mills, Schweller said, pointing to a map, and also along Interstate 64 from Mechums River to the Mile 107 interchange with Rt. 250.
The tower would stand behind the home bleachers of the field with an equipment shed built underneath. The site would be fenced off and checked by a technician twice a month, Schweller said. The tower would be a monopole (no bracing wires) painted brown, and the five triangular antenna arrays would also be brown.
The pole would be a Tier 3 type LTE, and Milestone is requesting a waiver from Board of Supervisors to raise the limit of three arrays to allow five. Tier 3 towers require a Special Use Permit. The arrays, each 14-feet across and supporting six antennas, would be 70 to 80 feet above the existing tree tops. The signal would have a 15- kilometer range, a little more than 9 miles. Shentel needs its antennas to be at least 135 feet in the air. The additional 10 feet of the pole provides the location for the antennas in Albemarle County Public School’s network. The tower at AHS has four arrays. White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek, a regular at CCAC meetings, noted the proposed tower would be the first in the county with five arrays. She dubbed it “a shooting for the moon request.” She and White Hall District Planning Commissioner Jenny More were the only officials to vote against the tower at AHS, which contradicts the county’s tower ordinance.
Signal coverage is governed by the height of the pole—the taller the farther—and having a taller pole cuts down the need for additional poles, Schweller pointed out.
Milestone conducted balloon tests of the location on September 21 (with leaves on the trees) and on December 7 (without leaves) to judge how conspicuous the tower would be. A four-foot-wide red balloon was raised to 145 feet. Schweller said the balloon could not be seen from Rt. 250 in the stretch along the high school when the leaves were on the trees. Without the leaves it was visible but not particularly noticeable. Photographs taken from Old Trail showed that the tower was difficult to discern. The lights poles for the football field are 80 to 90 feet tall, she said.
The leased area for the ground equipment would enclose 2,500 square feet and have a concrete pad surrounded by gravel. The exact location for the tower was chosen by school officials, who judged it the least intrusive spot.
ACPS would get rent from Milestone for providing the location, $20,000 per year for the tower itself and $5,000 per year from each carrier that used an array, amounting to $40,000 per year, said Schweller. The money would go to the school division’s general fund and not to Crozet-area schools exclusively. The lease period would be 30 years. Hernandez said the tower would cost roughly $250,000 to construct. If approved, it will be built this summer in six weeks.
Federal Communication Commission rules prevent local governments from considering the possible health affects from cell towers when making decisions about approving them. Critics of towers claim they raise the risk of cancer and other illnesses, but so far studies have not found a link and government and industry advocates say the radiation levels emitted by towers are below safely allowable limits.
Neighbors from Savannah Court spoke at the meeting but did not raise strong objections. Scott Hilles said, “We’re OK. It’s progress.” Thomas Jackson, a student at Western, raised cautions about erosion caused by construction.
CCAC member Tom Loach said he would rather the tower was at the lowest height possible and Kostis Alibertis commented, “If it was on private property we would be raising holy hell. This plan leverages the kids and that is hard to argue against.”
The proposal goes before the Planning Commission on February 20.