Albemarle might review cell tower policy
By Sean Tubbs
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will decide today whether the county should revisit a policy that restricts the location of towers for wireless telecommunications.
“It is time for us to bring our cell tower policy up to the 21st century,” said Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas in an interview.
Thomas was a member of the Albemarle Planning Commission in December 2000 when the county adopted an ordinance to prevent the construction of unsightly towers. The policy was the result of several months of study that culminated in a report from a California-based consultant.
“Thomas Jefferson chose Albemarle County for his home and as the site for the University of Virginia,” wrote Ted Kreines in the introduction to the 2000 policy.
“The reason for those choices is why many others have come to revere this place … and why county residents must be stewards of the land,” Kreines continued.
Visibility is the No. 1 criteria for whether a site is approved. The policy’s general guideline is that the more visible the tower, the less likely it will be approved.
If a tower has low visibility, it must go before the Planning Commission for approval. This is determined by floating a balloon at the tower site to gauge its visibility.
If a proposed tower would be highly visible, the Board of Supervisors must consider a special-use permit.
The policy also set up “avoidance areas” where the towers should not be located. These include agricultural and forestal districts, state scenic highways and historic districts.
Attorneys for Verizon Wireless have asked Albemarle officials to consider changing the county’s policy on locating wireless towers in order to facilitate improved cell phone and data service.
“Changing technology requirements have rendered the [county’s] wireless policy outdated,” wrote attorneys from the firm LeClair Ryan in an Aug. 31 position paper written on Verizon’s behalf.
“[The policy] is impeding the wireless industry’s efforts to provide services countywide and to install the infrastructure required for Fourth Generation (4G) service.”
4G service allows for data transmission speeds of up to 10 times faster than what is currently available. The company is hoping to bring the service to the area sometime in 2012.
Tuesday night, the Planning Commission approved five extensions to existing towers in order to allow for Verizon to offer 4G service. They were considered under the county’s existing policy.
“All the growth in wireless is in data,” attorney Lori W. Schweller with LeClair Ryan told the commission in a presentation. “We need the high speed of 4G to do that effectively.”
Schweller said consumers are demanding better service and she said citizens will be receptive to a policy change.
“We may see [cell antennas] but we see a lot of utility equipment such as telephone poles,” Schweller observed.
Under the policy, companies are encouraged to build as many antennas as possible on existing structures to avoid the need for new towers. 4G towers need to be separate from other towers to reduce interference, according to the paper.
County staff have recommended taking another look at the policy following requests from several wireless companies. They are recommending hiring a consultant to review the policy at a cost of around $50,000. The review could begin as soon as February.
Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams Mullen who is representing nTelos and AT&T, said she feels the county could make significant changes without hiring a consultant.
“We have quite a few applications in the works,” Long said. “This is an issue that is so important to our clients and their service to their customers.”
Commissioner Russell “Mac” Lafferty said he has been appreciative of the county’s existing policy.
“You only have to drive one county away to see monstrosities,” Lafferty said. “I feel we’re sending a message that visual impact is very important.”
The commission, however, approved a motion to request that the board review the policy.
“We’re getting behind in the technology,” said Commissioner Linda Porterfield. “This is becoming like heat and electricity … and we need to make sure we’re a technologically advanced county.”
Members of the environmental community will be watching to see how the policy might evolve.
“Albemarle’s current wireless facility regulations are a nationally recognized model,” said Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “In considering any policy and regulatory changes necessary to address new technology, the PEC will expect the county to fully maintain the current policy’s commitment to protecting the county’s beauty and rural character.”
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