Verizon Wireless Facility in Albemarle (File photo) Credit: Credit: Albemarle County

As Albemarle officials consider changes to the approval process for communications towers in the county, some residents are asking that key protections be maintained.

“Right now, you’re being asked to rule on a decision that will make it easier to place cell towers in established neighborhoods and if you agree to these changes it will have a significant impact on Key West in particular,” said Bob Toplin, who lives in the Key West neighborhood.

Toplin’s comments came during a recent public hearing before the Planning Commission. Staff wanted input on six distinct changes to the ordinance that governs how and where cell towers can be built.

In recent years, industry officials have been asking the county to streamline the approval process so more towers can be erected to satisfy growing demand for mobile data services.

Currently, site locations are covered by the county’s critical-slopes ordinance and a waiver is sometimes required to construct a tower and its base station. The proposed ordinance would instead allow disturbances by-right. That had the support of industry representatives, one of whom claimed disturbing a critical slope could be in the county’s benefit.

“A monopole [tower] to serve an area is best done on the side of a mountain or hill so that we don’t have sky-lighting,” said Lori Schweller, an attorney who represents Verizon. “We want to have that treed background so you don’t see the brown pole amid the trees.”

However, the commissioners did not reach consensus to recommend that change.

The current ordinance also requires that site locations must be set back from the property line at a distance that is at least the height of the tower and all equipment.

Staff is recommending allowing use of that ground equipment within the setback, but several dozen residents of the Key West neighborhood opposed that move.

“AT&T has been trying to place a cell tower between two houses in our neighborhood for five years,” said resident Ellen Dudley. “Last year’s application was turned down because their structural base would have been too close to the house on the adjacent lot.”

The application is for a 103-foot tower on a wooded property at 415 Key West Drive. The attorney representing AT&T reminded the commission that the Key West tower was not the subject of the public hearing.

“This is about proposed revisions to update the zoning to address all wireless facilities,” said Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams Mullen who represents several wireless providers.

The Planning Commission also voted to retain review by the county’s Architectural Review Board.

“The recurring question from the community is, I think, that if you approve something administratively, there’s not a mechanism for that to become appealable by the public to the Board of Supervisors,” said Commissioner Tim Keller.

Currently, applicants for new towers must submit a survey that lists each tree within a 50-foot radius of the proposed tower. Staff had recommending dropping that requirement, a move supported by the commission.

“Based on staff experience, the inclusion of detailed survey information on all trees within 50 feet does not aid in the review,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of special projects. “However, the proposed ordinance retains the ability to require the information if in a particular case it is determined to be necessary.”

Many of the Key West residents present at the meeting argued that the county should be holding wireless communications providers to a higher standard.

Amy Eichenberger suggested that new technology will soon make cell towers obsolete and urged the Planning Commission to keep that in mind.

“Have you been informed of all the other options that AT&T has in their back pocket?” Eichenberger asked. “Are there smaller installations? Could they do several other smaller installations to provide the kind of service that they are intending to provide?”

Keller suggested the commission defer action on the process changes until after the county has a larger conversation.

“It seems to me that we need to undertake a comprehensive digital connectivity plan for the county,” Keller said. “There are areas I’m sure that we can connect with hard wire, copper or fiber-optic that could preclude some of the towers that we are in such a hurry to approve.”

Fritz said the commission will hold a joint session with the Board of Supervisors in August to discuss digital connectivity and other issues.

“The broadband initiative is a wider-ranging conversation, and wireless is a component of that conversation,” Fritz said.

However, no other commissioners wanted to defer, but instead wanted to pass on at least some of their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. Commissioners agreed to recommend dropping the tree survey, to require photo-simulations of what towers would look like, and to require that companies get a special exception from the county before building access roads to site locations.

The Board of Supervisors will take up the ordinance change later this summer.