Steel in the Sky: Western Cell Tower Debate Heats Up

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Site rendering courtesy Albemarle County Planning Department

The speed and convenience of wireless data in the digital age can seem miraculous, but Albemarle County residents are coming to terms with the civic tradeoffs that accompany the quest for connectivity. The county Board of Supervisors will soon consider a proposal to build a cell tower on the grounds of Western Albemarle High School, and both citizens and local leaders are engaged in an increasingly polarized debate over the project’s perceived costs and benefits.

The issues are weighty, involving questions about student health risks and equal access to education as well as aesthetic and jurisdictional concerns. As the demand for wireless data for mobile devices in North America is predicted to increase seven-fold in the next five years, communities nationwide will have to make difficult cell service infrastructure decisions that balance these concerns—and determine who gets service and who doesn’t.

Connect the dots 

The Albemarle County School Division has a grand vision of broadband connectivity for all of its students both at school and at home, which the division characterizes as an issue of fairness and equity. Placing cell towers on or near school property is one element of their larger broadband strategy. 

These days, most school materials—assignments, syllabi, class notes, test review packets, group project materials—are available online, sometimes only online due to the drive to use less paper. Even elementary school students can now receive a writing prompt, type up the assignment, and submit it to their teacher, all via Internet. When students have little or no home Internet access due to geography, financial constraints, or simply a dearth of carrier options in their area, digital homework becomes a problem.

“The fundamental reason the School Board and School Division are pursuing cell tower agreements is equity for our students,” said Kate Acuff, School Board chair. “We are now a School Division with 1:1 computing down to grade three, but the power of that resource to promote student education is undermined when students lack access to the Internet.”

Ira Socol. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Ira Socol, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for the division, recounts stories of families sitting in cars and trucks outside a White Hall store in the evening to use the store’s WiFi to complete their homework, or shuttling back and forth to the public library for its Internet service. “Students being denied access to learning technology based on their zip code is fundamentally unfair,” said Socol. “It creates a divide between the digital haves and have-nots.”

The proposed cell tower at WAHS, to be built by Virginia-based tower developer Milestone Communications, LLC, aims to remedy much of that problem. Here’s how it would work: The school division would use the top antennae on the pole to broadcast a proprietary signal, which it receives at WAHS via fiber optic cable from the division’s data center, over the airwaves to area homes containing school-issued computers. 

Students could then connect to the Internet by using a custom-made “MiFi” device (or small antennae), provided by their school, that can receive the tower’s cellular signal to create a mobile hotspot at home. Under the proposed deal, if the school division allows the tower to be built on school property, the division can use the broadcast antennae space for free.

The school division points to “400 students” in the western district who will gain access to the Internet under the new tower plan. That estimate covers students at Crozet Elementary, Brownsville, Henley Middle, and WAHS who do not currently have home access. “To get that number, we relied on student self-reporting through our Speak Up surveys, and we did GIS mapping of student street addresses to see where the gaps are,” said Socol. “So it’s a rough guess.” 

Site plan for the proposed tower and access road, behind the home bleachers at the Western Albemarle High School track. Courtesy Albemarle County Planning Department.

A cell tower built by a private company on public property is currently the most cost effective option to reach these students, say school officials. “With a 145-foot tower, we can reach all the way to the Appalachian Trail—nine miles—if we have line of sight,” said Socol. “To put up a tower ourselves could cost a million dollars,” he said, “and to lease space on a [private] tower could cost between $2,800 and $4,000 per month. We would need to staff an entire department just to manage that process.”

Some Crozet residents wonder about using speedy fiber optic cable instead of a cell tower to improve broadband access, but laying the cable is a slow and expensive process, and running lines out to widely dispersed residences is not cost-efficient for private carriers. Right now, WAHS is linked to Henley and Brownsville through fiber leased from a commercial network, and the school division is working with the county to extend the line to Crozet Elementary, but this network won’t solve the problem of student home access.

Wireless carrier Shentel has committed to leasing an antennae array on the tower, adding an option for stronger cell service for its Crozet customers in areas where coverage is spotty or nonexistent. Residents could also subscribe to the cellular service and convert it to home WiFi by tethering a mobile device or by using a MiFi receiver. The cell tower would provide better service to the schools themselves, which often deal with weak signals and limited range. Parents would have an easier time reaching their kids at school, and police, fire, and rescue squads could use dedicated MiFi devices to improve their connection to and monitoring of school locations.

“One reason the School Board is in favor of the tower project is because the first responders tell us they need to have the coverage,” said David Oberg, School Board representative for the White Hall District. “To me, it’s a safety issue.”

A wave of opposition

The community debate over the cell tower pits defenders of children against each other, and opposition to the plan among Crozet residents centers around health concerns—given the tower’s proposed location on school grounds—as well as questions about aesthetics, zoning, and the school division’s claims of benefits. 

The tower proposal violates several sections of the county’s wireless ordinance, as it requests five antennae arrays instead of the specified maximum of three, fails visibility and concealment mandates, and is inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Ann Mallek, Board of Supervisors Chair and White Hall District representative, takes a dim view of the proposal.

“I am a strong supporter of the wireless ordinance,” said Mallek. “This tower fails on so many counts—the lack of concealment, the lack of proven need, the egregious height, and the fact that if this was any private landowner, it is highly unlikely that the Board would consider such a breach of our ordinance.”

The school division’s case for the tower rests on its projections of increased student broadband access. While division officials assert that 400 currently underserved students will be reached by the new tower, they are unable to provide data assuring that student home addresses on their coverage map actually represent students not already covered by broadband service. 

In addition, student home coverage estimates are dependent on the new cell tower’s range. Though the division projects a nine-mile signal radius under optimal conditions, a line of sight connection is fiendishly difficult to achieve in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. As a point of comparison, the division’s antennae will emit a signal of roughly the same strength as Shentel’s antennae, located on the next tier down on the pole, but Shentel expects to cover only a 1 to 1.5-mile radius. Similarly, the tower’s builder, Milestone Communications, usually estimates a range of less than three miles for a typical tower. 

Albemarle’s zoning restrictions have a direct effect on wireless service availability, say industry experts. “My team develops and maintains cell sites in seven states, and Albemarle County is the most challenging to cover from a wireless perspective because the [allowable] tower heights are so low,” said Dan Meenan, Vice President of Wireless Network Development for Shentel. “The typical wireless sweet spot is 150 to 200 feet. In neighboring jurisdictions, like Augusta for example, we can cover a lot more rural area with just one tower.”

Among the tower’s detractors, a significant source of concern is the potential health risk caused by exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation emitted by cell towers. The current science surrounding this type of “non-ionizing” radiation, as distinct from cell-damaging radio waves such as x-rays, is complex and has produced widely divergent opinions on the problem.

Concerned residents point to recent studies involving rats exposed to constant doses of cell phone RF radiation that have a shown a link to some kinds of cancerous tumors. Environ-mental Health Trust, a “nonprofit, scientific virtual think tank” whose executive director was instrumental in stopping construction of a cell tower in Prince George’s County, Maryland, warns that “peer-reviewed, published scientific research has found [cell tower] radiation can not only cause cancer but also damage to brain development and reproductive systems.”

In stark contrast, the American Cancer Society says that “RF waves don’t have enough energy to damage DNA directly, so it’s not clear how RF radiation might be able to cause cancer.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, notes that “exposure to the brain from RF fields from cell phone base stations (mounted on roofs or towers) is less than 1/100th the exposure to the brain from mobile devices such as cell phones,” and has not classified cell towers as having cancer-causing potential.

For purposes of the Western tower decision, however, the health risk debate is moot. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued guidelines (numerical limits, still in effect today) on the maximum exposure to humans from RF radiation from cell towers. At the same time, the FCC prohibited local governments from denying tower permits based upon RF environmental effects as long as the guidelines are followed. 

Thus, concerns based on perceived health risks cannot be considered by Albemarle County governing bodies in zoning decisions on cell towers. Citizen letters addressed to, for instance, the Planning Commission that base their objections on environmental or health-related concerns must be culled from those forwarded to Commissioners, and speakers at county proceedings may not raise health and safety objections during cell tower debates. 

A tall order

Both the WAHS wireless tower and the recently-completed tower at Albemarle High School were proposed by Milestone Communications, a developer based in Reston that specializes in matching municipalities in need of more coverage with cellular service providers. Len Forkas founded Milestone 17 years ago when he recognized the potential to serve as a conduit between cell carriers cutting back on building their own towers and municipalities demanding co-location of carriers on towers to cut down on “a plethora of poles everywhere.”

“I thought, what better places to partner with than schools and parks, because typically those locations already have tall vertical elements,” said Forkas. “It’s a good design solution, and it serves these important communities that need access.”

The company arranges marketing agreements with local school boards that give Milestone the right to market county school property sites to wireless carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, and Shentel who seek to lease antennae space on towers. Upon approval of a site by the school board, Milestone builds the tower and pays a portion of the carrier lease revenue to the local county. AHS’s 125-foot cell tower was constructed under these terms during the past school year.

Though Milestone’s 2017 marketing agreement with Albemarle County Public Schools is currently “under review” by the county due to irregularities in its execution (please see the story “Soft Cell…” on page 29 for further details), the school division derives clear benefits from this type of arrangement in its drive to expand connectivity. While it’s called a “marketing” agreement, Forkas bristles at the suggestion that Milestone “advertises” potential sites. 

“We’re not going around putting ads in wireless magazines with pictures of all our sites,” he said. “It’s a dialogue with the wireless companies and the site owners—a bridge between the two groups. We have an expertise. We speak both languages. Without us, the tower locations picked first [by carriers] are private sites, because the decision process is typically shorter,” said Forkas, which leaves school districts that are unable to pay high monthly lease rates on private towers out of the loop.

Milestone’s marketing agreement included an analysis of Albemarle County’s 33 potential locations, which identified 11 sites—ten elementary schools and one middle school—as having “great broadband needs.” In light of this, residents might assume that cell towers are already planned for multiple locations across the county. “That’s not the case,” said Forkas. “Each site rests on its own merits, and the leasing decision is up to the site owner.”

In a counterintuitive twist, tower signals don’t carry as far as they used to. “In 2001 there were only 50,000 towers in the U.S.,” said Forkas. “There are over 300,000 towers now. The area that can be covered by a cell tower signal continues to get smaller because the density of the data that goes through the tower continues to rise.” The tower’s reach is constrained by the physics of the antennae, which can only process so much data. The result: high data uses like streaming video clog the flow and limit the signal’s strength during peak usage periods.

Recently erected cell tower near football field at Albemarle High School (center). The commercial arrays have not yet been installed on the monopole. Photo: Lisa Martin.

A tale of two towers

The site for the cell tower that now stands behind Albemarle High School’s football stadium was approved by the School Board in early 2016. Although the county’s Architectural Review Board did not support the tower, noting that it was too “visible” to be consistent with the surrounding viewshed, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the project, including an exception from the county’s wireless facilities ordinance to allow a wider antennae projection from the pole. The Board of Supervisors, stressing the educational benefits of increased cell service, approved the tower plan with only Ann Mallek voting no.

This year, however, when faced with a similar cell tower proposal governed by the same ordinance, the Planning Commission did not recommend WAHS’s 145-foot structure for approval. Planning Commissioner Jennie More, a Crozet resident, says there’s been a learning process with the tower projects. “Now that we’re starting to hear more of these applications, we have to be careful not to let the exception become the norm. It’s important to follow the ordinance.” 

More and her fellow Commissioners also feel squeezed at times. “The schools have created these web-based learning programs, and have marched ahead without the thought of what will happen to these children without access,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to put that burden back on the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors [to make zoning exceptions] for a problem they’ve created for themselves.”

The approval process continues with a Board of Supervisors hearing on the special permit requests as well as a public hearing on September 12, and Ira Socol, for one, is optimistic. “The Planning Commission views their role as purely about the ordinances in a black and white way, and I understand that,” he said. “But I think the Board of Supervisors sees the bigger picture, and will consider the advantages not only for the students, but also for the general public as well as the emergency services in the area.” 

“From the standpoint of a development plan for the western part of the county, you have to consider what will make successful communities over the next twenty years, both the physical and the digital,” said Socol. And that’s a lot of ground to cover.

Editor’s Update: Socol left county employment August 1, 2018. 

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