The Albemarle Board of Supervisors has signaled that county neighborhoods should be protected from construction of new cell towers.
“That way the providers know what the game plan is coming in,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd at a work session Wednesday on the county’s wireless communications policy.
In 2000, Albemarle enacted an ordinance that sought to stop the erection of highly visible cellphone towers. Those that can be seen must go before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for approval.
Staff was directed by a previous board to streamline the ordinance to allow telecommunications companies to have faster reviews. One set of amendments already has been enacted into the county code.
“The last set of amendments, which was done in 2013, was a series that brought us into compliance with new rules by the [Federal Communications Commission] and the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act,” said Bill Fritz, chief of current development for Albemarle County. As part of those changes, review of some cell tower applications became the purview of staff rather than the board.
In June, the Albemarle Planning Commission recommended several other changes to the ordinance that were developed through roundtables with industry personnel.
For example, the commission endorsed a proposal that would allow a tower’s base station to be located within the structure’s setback requirements. If a tower is 100 feet tall, it must be erected 100 feet away from all nearby property lines.
To accomplish that goal in the ordinance, staff recommended replacing the word “facility” with “monopole” in one section of the proposed ordinance revisions.
“Until now, the word ‘facility’ gave Albemarle neighborhoods slightly broader setback protection,” said John Clem, a resident of Key West. “If it is removed, that protection disappears.”
Bellair resident Dave Vanderwar urged the county to proceed very cautiously with rule changes.
“Our neighborhood has one of the earliest tree top towers established in Albemarle and it has grown in its use and intensity over the years,” Vanderwar said. “The setback issue is a key [way] to control the future placement and ongoing enlargement of these uses which do present visual and operational impacts to residents.”
However, Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said it was important to balance residential protection with consumer demand.
“It has been the policy of the county to have more towers, shorter towers, all throughout the county,” Williamson said, adding that Americans are becoming more reliant on wireless communications devices and that the industry is trying to satisfy demand.
Fritz said many localities require larger setbacks and don’t allow towers in residential neighborhoods. However, he said many of those that do also allow taller towers.
“What you get in many of those cases is nothing in the residential districts, but on the commercial property at their entrances, there can be a 150-foot tower that would never get approved in Albemarle,” Fritz said.
Boyd said the county had the capability to simply restrict future towers from being located in residential neighborhoods.
Fritz said the county could make that rule change, but only if it would comply with a 1996 federal law that prohibits localities from banning wireless facilities.
Supervisor Jane Dittmar said the board had to understand the technical tradeoffs between protecting residents and satisfying consumer demand for wireless communications.
“Neighborhoods are going to require in the future some way to communicate if we don’t allow tall towers,” Dittmar said. “If we don’t allow tall towers, there has to be lots of shorter towers.”
Dittmar said Albemarle has consistently rejected tall towers because of their impact on the county’s aesthetics.
“If you drive into West Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, cell towers are so tall and so huge, and we didn’t want that here,” Dittmar said.
Supervisors opted to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendation on the setback change. They also put the brakes on several other relaxations of the ordinance, including a request to allow critical slopes to be disturbed in order to build the towers.
“What we need to do is protect the adjacent property owners from the worst-case scenario,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer. “I would rather err on the very conservative side and keep it for right now.”
Fritz said he would amend the proposed ordinance with board feedback, return for further input from the Planning Commission, and then the ordinance will go back to the board for a vote.
If towers aren’t allowed in residential neighborhoods, Fritz said a new technology known as “distributed antenna systems” could be utilized.
“They’re not conventional towers but they are wireless facilities,” Fritz said. These can be attached to lampposts, for instance.