Cell towers and park parking requirements were the two main topics of a Charlottesville Planning Commission work session held on June 24, 2008. The Commission agreed to initiate a review of the City’s zoning ordinances that govern the amount of parking spaces required at City parks. They also viewed a presentation from Steven Blaine, an attorney working with Verizon Wireless to petition the City to allow telecommunications towers on residential and school properties.
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The request to revisit the parking ordinance was initiated by City Parks and Recreation staff while they continue redeveloping various parks across Charlottesville. Neighborhood Planner Brian Haluska said the new site plans for Meade and Forest Hill Parks have triggered a concern that existing zoning requires too many spaces.
“Our standard of parking for these facilities is essentially based on one line in the City code, which is out door recreational facilities,” Haluska said. “I think it says a space for every 600 square feet [of active parkland].”
Haluska said that would mean Forest Hills Park would require 57 spaces, which would eliminate parkland. In fact, the park redesign shows the removal of an existing asphalt space in favor of more open space. Haluska said the City can’t currently grant a waiver to overcome the limit without changing the existing code. After a lengthy discussion, the Commission voted to begin the process of considering the ordinance change. Commissioner Cheri Lewis said she supported the change, but would have liked to have had more information in front of her before making a decision. The item will come back before the Commission later this year.
Earlier this month, the Commission agreed to initiate the study of a zoning ordinance change that would allow “telecommunications facilities” – or cell towers – to be installed in more locations throughout the City. This work session was intended to advance that work. Verizon Wireless, which has petitioned for the change, wants to be able to erect monopole or alternative towers on residential property and on school property by special permit.
Blaine said under the existing zoning code, cell towers are prohibited on 61 percent of City land. That means that Verizon and others have a hard time completing their network for wireless data and voice. Towers can currently be permitted in residential zones, but Blaine said the existing law is very restrictive.
“You can only have an antenna that is not visible from the adjoining street or adjoining property owner,” Blaine said. “That makes the effectiveness of the antennas severely limited.”
Blaine is seeking changes that would allow camouflaged towers in locations that otherwise are quite visible. For example, currently there are towers on top of the Omni and the Monticello Hotel that are technically visible, but blend in with the surroundings. Valerie Long, an attorney representing other wireless providers, was also on hand at the meeting to provide comments.
Blaine also told the Commission that under Federal law, the City could not restrict the placement of cell towers based on electromagnetic interference or health concerns. He said Verizon Wireless would be conducting a campaign to convince the public that there is no connection between cell towers and health conditions. Chairman Jason Pearson agreed, and that the Commission would restrict its deliberation to what was legally possible. Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris said that the 1996 Telecommunications Act specifically limits a locality’s ability to regulate towers based on health concerns, and that the City could be sued if it proceeded to do so.
Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked if providers could be required to update any antennas or towers as new technologies are developed that cause these towers to become obsolete. Blaine said that would be acceptable. Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said it would be difficult to define “camouflage” in the City Code given the highly subjective nature of the technique.
Chairman Pearson had concerns that the Planning Commission would increase its workload by having a whole new category of special permits to consider. Blaine said Verizon Wireless would only be submitting six applications, and that is only because the company is newly entering the market. Lewis requested more information on how other jurisdictions across Virginia are handling the zoning of cell towers.
Four members of the public attended the meeting, which was held in a the close quarters of the Neighborhood Development Services conference room. Greenbrier resident Mary Sullivan said she was concerned that the ordinance change would allow the construction of the towers on school property, something she said would put children’s health in danger. UVA Professor of Opthamology Paul Yates said the City should not risk exposing students to the added electromagnetic frequencies, even if the data is not yet conclusive.
“The problem is that the long-term studies on electromagnetic radiation on children exposed to cell phone towers… has not been done,” Yates said. “We will find out in twenty years whether there are any effects.” He urged the Commission to find some other way to keep these off school property. Andrew Gilmore said there were already enough wireless providers in Charlottesville and that the zoning change would open the door to many more.
The item will come back before the Planning Commission at its regular meeting on
July 22, 2008
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