A Tale of Two Cell Towers

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A map showing the Batesville Historic District homes and boundary next to the placement of the Verizon cell tower (the red dot), on the southwest border of the Miller School’s 1,600-acre campus. Courtesy Albemarle County.

Two applications for cell towers in western Albemarle County have been approved by the Board of Supervisors (BOS) recently, neither without controversy. The “Scruby” tower near the intersection of I-64 and Greenwood Station Road was approved, though Ann Mallek (in whose district the tower is sited) voted no. The “Batesville” tower, proposed for a site on the southwest border of the Miller School of Albemarle’s property, was also approved even as neighbors claimed that proper procedures were not followed.

Scruby/Greenwood Tower

Nicknamed for Brian Scruby, on whose property it will be built, the 142-foot Scruby cell tower was originally proposed for the area adjacent to the entrance to Septenary Winery on Greenwood Station Road but was moved 700 feet to the east after the winery owners objected. Cell signal reception is spotty in that region of Greenwood/Afton, and most other neighbors were strongly in favor of the project to improve their service. 

Even after the tower’s relocation to a spot mostly invisible from the winery, county planning staff recommended denial because it would still be visible from I-64 and other locations “within the Greenwood-Afton Rural Historic District”—an area of more than 16,000 acres. Staff also noted that the trees screening the site on the winery side “were not controlled by the applicant” and thus could potentially be removed or die off. The Planning Commission struggled for hours with the issue but ultimately recommended approval based on the need for cell service for local residents and for travelers on I-64.

Map of the Scruby cell tower location (red star) and its visibility from surrounding locations.

At the Board of Supervisors’ hearing, however, Supervisor Mallek said her ‘no’ vote was constrained by the rules on screening. “The basis of my decisions on these has always been, what is the adopted ordinance under which we should operate?” said Mallek. “The fact is, we have a policy, and also an ordinance which has been modified many times over the years to be compliant with state and federal regulations and is based upon lots of public input over those years. If a change in approach needs to be made, my strong choice is that that be done first, so that we have our feet on solid ground to make a decision.”

Mallek said that the Scruby tower application was the first she’d seen that didn’t have any of its own trees to provide the necessary screening. “It does not meet that screening criteria, and there will be impacts on the local owners’ property around this project,” she said. “Visibility is the criteria that the county is permitted by the courts to use in siting poles—really the only criteria we have. The visibility rules that we have had over the last 22 years have provided a scenery basis that benefits local residents as well as travelers and our local tourism economy.” The cell tower was approved 4-2, with Mallek and board chair Donna Price opposed.

Batesville Tower

The Batesville tower application process unfolded in a manner almost opposite that of the Scruby tower. In the Batesville case, an 87.5-foot pole was proposed for a spot along the far southwest edge of Miller School’s 1,600-acre campus, 120 feet from the nearest house and 80 feet from the Batesville Historic District boundary. Because the tower was categorized as a “Tier II,” meaning the mount for the antennas would be no more than 10 feet taller than the tallest tree within 25 feet of the mount, the BOS was not required to approve the tower itself.

However, the board was required to approve the special exception Verizon Wireless requested to extend the antennas away from the pole by an additional six inches. Both during the hearing and afterwards, neighbors described the process as opaque. “We were sent a letter in June notifying us about the project, but none of us were sent anything about the balloon test [conducted on July 6],” said Ryan Woodbury, owner of the property nearest the cell tower site. 

A balloon test is used to estimate how visible a cell tower or pole will be to surrounding areas by sending up a red balloon the height of the proposed tower at the site and photographing the balloon from several vantage points. Typically, neighbors are notified so they can observe the test. “Verizon submitted photos of the test [as part of the application] that didn’t even show our house was right across the street,” said Woodbury.

Woodbury was referring to county regulations that require that the “applicant shall provide actual photographs of the site taken from the site toward the nearest residence and public road.” Images toward the nearest residence do not appear in the set of documents on public file for this project—the only close-in photos were taken from the road toward the site. 

Supervisor Ann Mallek asked county planner Kevin McCollum specifically about the balloon test notification in the board’s September 21 meeting. “Were the neighbors informed about the balloon test?” said Mallek, “because I’ve attended dozens of these tests over the years and always there’s been a great effort to make sure that people were told.”

McCollum responded: “This is a Tier II [tower], and we treat that as a site review committee item, so all abutting neighbors were sent a letter with information, and I believe they were informed about the balloon test. Some of them came to the test, some weren’t available as they were on vacation. But they were informed of the balloon test.”

When pressed as to why McCollum had asserted that notification had been given, county communications manager Abbey Stumpf explained that he “was referring to emails sent to inquiring individuals” in his response. Stumpf also noted that “balloon tests are not required to be noticed” under county code. Supervisors regularly point out during cell tower hearings that the county regulations covering these structures is a quarter-century old and badly in need of updating.

“The only question before the board was the special exception 6-inch additional offset for a part of the antenna, not the tower’s location,” said Supervisor Jim Andrews, whose district includes Batesville. “It is unfortunate that the tower is proposed so close to the Batesville Historic District, but the review level/criteria for the board would only have changed in this case if, in fact, the tower were proposed to be inside those Historic District lines.”

Andrews also addressed the notification issue. “As part of the county’s administrative review, I was told before the board meeting on this proposed tower that notice was sent to abutting neighbors, but I have since learned that separate notice of the balloon test was only sent to those who had made inquiries after the first notice,” he said. “I believe that all legally required notices were provided. I will need to dig further to learn what authority the board has to require wider/additional notices in cases like this one. I agree that it would have been great if more people would have had an opportunity to see the balloon test in person.”

Woodbury said that she and other neighbors met twice with administrators at Miller School, asking them to move the tower site away from the historic neighborhood, to no avail. Head of School Mike Drude responded to questions with a statement to the Gazette, emphasizing the school’s commitment to campus safety. 

“Continual assessments identified the need to address serious gaps in communication coverage on our campus and the Batesville area,” read the statement. “Reliable cell phone connectivity is vital to fulfilling our obligation to the safety of our students and faculty. Therefore, we engaged with Verizon almost a decade ago to solve this area’s inconsistent cell service problem. Verizon deemed the location the best to provide reliable cell phone coverage for our Miller community and the surrounding area and has complied with all local, state, and federal applications and notices as part of the approval process.”

Woodbury’s family is considering moving to avoid the tower’s effects. “The health impacts [of wireless facility exposure] are inconclusive, but I’m not willing to live next to a cell phone tower with my three children,” she said. “There are also effects on our property values—why would they [locate it] in a place that dragged down all the property values? It’s a concrete slab and is going to kill the trees, leaving it completely exposed, and there will be generators and trucks going in and out, making noise. Verizon’s attorney stated that ‘this facility will not have visual and audible impact on the neighbors,’ which is completely untrue. We’re right across the street.”

Woodbury and other neighbors are enlisting the help of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) and its Historic Preservation Office to block the tower’s location on the border of the Batesville Historic District. “The applicant [Verizon] has to go through an application with the DHR, and then the DHR advises other entities on whether there will be an adverse impact on a historic district. The DHR agreed that Verizon needed to resubmit their application because the height of the tower had changed, so we’re holding onto that one small bit of hope.”

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