The Charlottesville Planning Commission has endorsed revisions to the city’s zoning rules for communications facilities which would allow more microcell antennas to support wireless devices.

“Our ordinance hasn’t been updated since 2003 and from 2003 to the present, there have been a lot of changes in federal law both procedurally and substantively in terms of definitions of different types of equipment and facilities,” said deputy city attorney Lisa Robertson at a meeting Tuesday.

Microcells are small facilities designed to boost wireless services, but under city code, they cannot be installed on buildings less than 40 feet tall.

“The issue with the 40 foot height requirement is that in certain portions of the city — most notably the Barracks Road area — the predominant pattern of development is buildings that are less than 2 stories in height or at least less than 3,” Robertson said. “So it’s really difficult to find a building to attach these things to.”

Local attorneys for wireless service providers have requested several changes to the zoning ordinance to improve wireless reception — specifically, the removal of the 40 foot height requirement, adding special provisions for microcells and allowing alternative towers such as monopoles disguised as trees in every zoning district.

Freestanding cell towers are currently prohibited in residential zoning districts, but are allowed in certain commercial districts.

Attached antennas are allowed by-right in residential and commercial districts as long as they are not visible from any adjacent street or property and meet the 40 foot height requirement.

In its report, the city’s attorney’s office recommended removal of the 40 foot height requirement and updating the approval process for telecommunications facilities to reflect changes in federal law, but did not recommend adding provisions specifically for microcells or permitting “alternative towers” in all districts.  

Robertson said because federal law uses broad definitions focusing on the function of equipment, city code should not distinguish microcells from other types of antennas and should instead update the existing definition of “antenna” to include new technologies.

Robertson also said the current definition of an alternative tower in city code was causing some confusion and needs to be better defined if the city wants to keep the term in the ordinance.

The report noted the facilities associated with the current definition of an “alternative tower” could fall under definitions for an attached facility or tower.  

“We’re very happy to see the elimination of the 40 foot building height,” said attorney Lori Schweller of LeClairRyan, which represents Verizon Wireless.“

Attorney Valerie Long of Williams Mullen represented Shentel at the meeting and also supported the zoning updates.

“Not only have there been significant changes in federal law in recent years, but at the same time, there has been significant changes in the technology that we all use,” Long said.

Commissioner Kurt Keesecker asked if facilities could be attached to appurtenances, which are structures that do not count in the height of a building.

Robertson said it is not clear whether an attachment structure for an antenna has to be a building or can be another structure and said the commission could recommend a clarification.

Commissioner Corey Clayborne asked about antenna sizes.

“They’re having to do more in a single antenna than the used to do,” Long said.  “With the explosion of data demand, [service providers] are needing bigger and better antennas.”

Long noted Albemarle County recently amended their zoning ordinance to increase the maximum size of an antenna from 1152 square inches to 1400 square inches.

Schweller said microcells are typically about 2 feet long and are getting smaller over time.

Commissioner Lisa Green asked if microcells are a trend for the city.

“In the city, our focus, speaking on behalf of Verizon Wireless, is small cells because you have highly concentrated areas of population,” Schweller said.

Long said Shentel is not working as much with microcells, but is identifying areas in the city with poor coverage and providing better service by collocating on existing towers whenever possible, although there are some locations where no structure currently exists.

Long noted some locations might be best served with alternative towers.

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the city attorney’s recommendations, but suggested revisions to ensure the lowest level of an antenna and its mounting structure would be at no point lower than the second level of a building or 15 feet, whichever is greater.

The commission also recommended an appurtenance cannot be used attachment structure with the effect that a portion of the equipment exceed the height of the appurtenance.

City Council will now consider these suggested zoning amendments.

Commissioner Jody Lahendro said he hopes to see a report on approved facilities a year after any changes are adopted to better understand their consequences.