T


he Charlottesville Planning Commission

considered five changes to the City’s zoning ordinances at their

June 10, 2008 meeting

, and initiated formal reviews of four modifications. A Planning Commission decision to initiate a zoning text amendment does not mean an approval of the amendment, but merely starts a 100 day process during which City staff study the proposed changes in depth.

The first amendment requested was an alteration to current regulations forbidding cell phone sites in residential areas. Attorney Steven Blaine of LeClair Ryan represented Verizon Wireless, and said the telecommunications firm is  hoping to build approximately half a dozen sites in the City of Charlottesville over the next year to increase the capacity and consistency of their network. Verizon Wireless has been unable to find enough sites in commercial districts, and wants to be able to place towers on non-residential properties in residential districts. The company’s proposal would require that each tower in such a location would need a special use permit.



603 Dale Avenue, one of the 10 buildings potentially protected, has been condemned by the City of Charlottesville.

Commissioners questioned the need for more towers, wondering if it was not possible to co-locate with other wireless carriers, and pointed out that Verizon’s pending acquisition of Alltel might provide sufficient bandwidth. Blaine responded by detailing the advantages of the latest generation of cellular technology (3G), pointing to the recently introduced Apple iPhone as an example. He also stressed the ability of emergency response services to trace 911 calls made on these next generation networks.

Mr. Blaine also touted advances in the aesthetics of cell towers, showing a picture of a tower disguised as a pine tree. He argued that the increased network strength would be to the community’s benefit, and that the drawbacks would be relatively insignificant. Blaine acknowledged that placing a tower in a residential area was likely to cause controversy over possible health risks, but he stated confidently that the company had consultants who “will say that the emissions on the ground for the human body from these types of facilities are less than what you would encounter with ambient emissions in your own home because of your television set or your microwave oven.”

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig asked what steps the local government could take if, after approval of the amendment, new scientific evidence came to light that demonstrated a clear and present danger from cell tower emissions. The Deputy City Attorney replied that unless the Federal Telecommunications Act was changed, it would preempt local government from making any zoning or permit decisions based upon health concerns, no matter how valid they might be. The Commission voted to initiate the review process for reasons of public convenience and good zoning practice.


Next

, the Commission initiated a look into the designation of 10 historic buildings as individually protected properties, a designation that would require any changes to the buildings to receive approval from the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). All 10 had received unanimous support from the BAR, but the owners of some of the properties, including the building at 603 Dale Avenue, objected to the designation of their property. Other groups, including the Martha Jefferson Hospital, Monticello Dairy, and the Coal Tower found the designation acceptable. The Commission unanimously approved an initiation of the review process.

Mr. Michael Masters, President of the Meadowbrook Hills Neighborhood Association, opened

the next topic

with a plea to the Commission to protect his neighborhood from commercial development that he said would harm the quality of life for residents. He cited a neighborhood petition asking for restrictions on vehicular and pedestrian traffic, building height and size, and building across the Meadowbrook stream. The Commission was sensitive to his concerns, but felt that there was a possibility that existing ordinances already adequately protected the neighborhood, and further regulation would abridge the property rights of landowners. They directed City staff to research the matter further, and postponed a decision on whether or not to initiate an amendment process.

The quickest discussion of the meeting resulted in the unanimous initiation of an

amendment

to allow the City to require the construction of affordable housing when considering rezoning and special use permits. This power was granted by the Virginia General Assembly in 2008 through

HB 883

.

The Commission ended the initiation portion of the meeting by approving a request from Steve Hopkins of Great Eastern Management to look into

expanding the allowed size of health clinics

in the Highway Corridor. His company, which operates Seminole Square shopping center, has a kidney dialysis company lined up to move in to a vacant space, but the operation would require approximately 10,000 square. feet. The current zoning ordinance restricts medical uses to only 4,000 square feet. Commissioner Mike Farruggio expressed confusion as to why dialysis operations at the Martha Jefferson and UVA hospitals were insufficient for the community, but the Commission voted to initiate the amendment anyway.

City staff will research the specifics and consequences of the changes, and will pass their findings on to the Commission. Public hearings will also be held to gather further input from citizens. Currently, the amendments are considered deferred; the Planning Commission now has 100 days to make their recommendation. If no decision is reached, the zoning changes will move on to City Council with a recommendation for approval.


Ben Doernberg