At 10 p.m. on September 12, amid discussion of the last agenda item of a meeting that had already run for eight hours, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors’ debate over a proposed cell tower took an unexpected turn.
Following staff presentations and more than two dozen citizen comments both for and against a proposed 145-foot tower to be built at Western Albemarle High School, Board members seemed poised to reject the proposal on the ground that it was simply too visible—inadequately screened from surrounding homes and roads as the county cell tower ordinance requires. The Supervisors appeared to be leaning 3-2 against, with only Diantha McKeel (Jack Jouett district) and Neal Galloway (Rio) speaking in favor, when, during the closing moments, Rick Randolph (Scottsville) tossed an alternative into his closing statement.
“I will oppose this application at this height,” said Randolph, “but I would be very receptive to the applicant coming back with a tower proposal that is closer to 80 feet, and therefore would have surrounding existing trees that would make it consistent with code.” Addressing this suggestion, the county’s Chief of Special Projects Bill Fritz advised that the applicant could request a deferral and submit a revision, or could submit a new application at a later date if they wished.
Instead, after a recess during which County Attorney Greg Kamptner prepared the resolution to deny the tower application, LeClairRyan attorney Lori Schweller, representing cell tower builder Milestone Communications, approached the podium and asked to modify the proposal to a tower height of 80 feet. “It’s a severe mitigation from the schools’ point of view, but they’d rather have an approval tonight than no approval at all,” said Schweller. (FCC regulations allow a one-time 20-foot increase to an approved tower, so an 80-foot tower proposal means a 100-foot tower in practice, a fact well-understood by Board members and staff, but not always by the public.)
Ann Mallek, Board chair and White Hall representative, was nonplussed by the request. “We have no balloon testing or materials to be able to deliberate at this point at this hour, so I feel a little bit out of sorts to have it be asked for now and put us on the spot, without any background or pictures,” said Mallek. She noted that a height reduction was suggested to the applicant by county staff several times over the past six months and was refused. “They told us over and over again that at a lower height, the service would suffer.”
Schweller explained that the original height request was dictated by the school division, not by Milestone. “The schools had asked for 145 feet because they needed to cover a particular area to get wireless coverage to their students,” she said, but indicated that the lower height would still expand coverage to some degree.
A flurry of discussion ensued. Supervisor Randolph immediately moved to approve the revised proposal and was seconded by McKeel, while Mallek argued against the hasty reversal and Liz Palmer (Samuel Miller) requested staff to clarify the implications of the change. “At this point, my brain is mush,” said Palmer. McKeel made an impassioned plea for approval.
“Our children are at risk,” said McKeel, her voice breaking, “and part of it is because communities have ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ wealthy people who make sure their children have every benefit, and others who cannot afford Internet service. This is a critical piece for our young people who need the access so they will have the same advantages as others when they graduate. These children can’t wait four years, they’ll be adults, they’ll be out of school, we will have lost them. Every one of them needs someone to stand up for them and make sure they have the same opportunities that my child had.”
However, Jaime Foreman, Interim Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for the schools, said that the school division’s estimate of the (original) tower’s potential to reach 400 more students with cell service was based on a map that identified 400 addresses in the signal propagation area, without confirming whether or not the residents of those houses already have cell service, or even whether current students reside in them. Foreman did not directly address the likely reduced coverage of a shorter tower.
“Our position is, some number of those students likely could use coverage,” said Foreman, “and for us, we value any opportunity to provide Internet access to students who don’t currently have it.”
Ultimately, the Board approved the amended proposal, which passed 4-1 with only Mallek voting no. “I am dumbfounded by the shambles at the end of the meeting,” said Mallek the day after the meeting. “This was a crushing defeat for proper process and for my reliance on it. Despite preparation, research, and much excellent public comment, we did not get the result we deserved.”
Regarding questions about the end-of-meeting process, County Attorney Greg Kamptner explained that “it is within the discretion of the Board to recognize somebody who asks to speak after a public hearing is closed,” whether the applicant or other members of the public. He also noted that Milestone was allowed to alter its proposal without going through a new application because the revision lessened the impact from the proposed special use by reducing the tower’s visibility. “The Board may consider and approve something “less” than what the applicant [originally] requested … without requiring a new hearing,” said Kamptner.
Representing Milestone as well as taking direction from Albemarle County Public Schools, Schweller said the process could have been streamlined with better communication. “The height of the tower was the only attribute of this facility that concerned the public, and it would have been much easier for us, as well as for the Board of Supervisors and county staff, if we could have learned [that a lower height was acceptable] from the school division much earlier in the process,” she said after the meeting.
Will a cell tower that is one-third shorter than planned do Crozet residents and students any good? Dan Meenan, Shentel’s Vice President of Wireless Network Development, said yes. “The site will work for us at the approved height,” said Meenan, “and will provide good wireless service to three critical community gathering points [WAHS, Brownsville, and Henley].” As for surrounding neighborhoods looking for a better signal, Shentel engineers hadn’t yet completed a review of the new propagation radius, but Meenan said, “There will definitely be a significant improvement in service in the neighborhoods that border the schools.”
Looking ahead, Schweller said the process now moves to site and building plans, and that the specifics of the lease agreement—a ten-year term, a one-time $25,000 payment to the county when the tower is built, plus 40 percent of any annual carrier rental revenues—were previously approved by the School Board, contingent upon the proposal receiving BOS approval. The School Board, however, disagrees. “We are anticipating that the contract will come back before our Board for final approval,” said School Board chair Kate Acuff, “and that staff will work with Milestone Communications to finalize the contract and construction.”
Given the pace of technological advances and the need for online access, this fraught process of cell tower approvals is likely to continue, in no small part because the county’s 18-year-old wireless ordinance is woefully behind the times. In the WAHS tower debate, some of the antennae specification issues before the BOS were not even conceived of when the policy was written, as noted by Schweller. “The process these days is often one of asking for special exceptions for things like antennae size and offset,” she said. “The exceptions are routinely granted because the ordinances are so out of date.”
Supervisor Galloway stressed the need for the BOS to get with the times. “Beyond this application, our wireless policy is vastly overdue for reconsideration so that the Board can debate these issues that we end up debating piecemeal with each application,” said Galloway, “and so that we quit putting the community through having to support or not support the tower based on its location. If it’s a philosophical conversation we need to have, then it needs to come to this Board without delay. There are other things we need to discuss beyond just visibility, and it behooves this Board to dive into those values.”