A torn Albemarle County Planning Commission voted Tuesday night, 3-2, to recommend approval of a 125-foot wireless tower that will be worth more than $50,000 to the county schools.
Commissioners Pam Riley and Bruce Dotson did not attend the meeting.
The wireless facility, which will sit between the baseball diamond and the football field on the southern border of the school property, will net the schools about $30,000 in one-time money when it is installed, and $24,000 a year when its antenna arrays are leased, said county schools Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt
County staff recommended against approval of the structure, which would hold three separate antenna platforms, on grounds that it would be out of character for the neighborhood and damage views of the mountains west of the school.
“The addition of the facility as designed does not respect existing views and vistas,” said county senior planner Chris Perez. “Telecommunications facilities to be constructed on county property should be made to meet the county’s design standards.”
The commission’s approval came with the condition that the tower have a design height of 105 feet, to account for a federal rule that allows telecommunication tower companies to increase the height of an existing approved pole by 20 feet.
Staff from the county schools asked that planners vote in favor of the tower, which they said would help the division get wireless internet service to some of its neediest students.
The division, which is in the midst of a three-year effort to make free wireless available to all of its students, will have access to the highest antenna array on the structure if it is approved, said county schools Chief Information Officer Vince Scheivert.
“What we do know is that we have about 60 percent of our students in that area who cannot afford broadband connectivity even if it is available,” Scheivert said. “The attractive thing about the antenna array is that the school division is at the top … It allows us to expand out as far as we can.”
Meeting documents showed county planning staff found no favorable factors for the structure’s approval.
The report listed five knocks against the tower, including: its height, design and location on the Albemarle High School property, it was not properly screened from view and the pole was not mounted close enough to its utility building.
County resident Sue Stoke said the tower would be clearly visible from her property west of the school in the fall and winter.
“I am not opposed to having cell towers all over, and this is what is going to help the young people to learn today,” Stoke, a former teacher, said. “However, as we go down the side from the tower to the creek, those are our woods, and we are the folks with questions about that cell tower.”
Barbara Cruikshank, a former nurse at the University of Virginia Medical Center, opposed the antenna because of its impact on views and possible danger to nearby schoolchildren.
“My primary concern is the health of the children at the schools and in the fields near the school,” she said. “This is something very important and I will hope that you will consider these … reasons for denying this proposal.”
Design documents showed the monopole would be unpainted galvanized steel and would be visible above the surrounding treeline.
The report said county staff did not think the pole would be a “significant detriment” to the surrounding houses, but that its installation would hurt the character of the neighborhood.
Albemarle High School sits on a 219-acre lot on the west side of Hydraulic Road, which is in the county’s rural area. The pole, the report said, would be contrary to the county’s comprehensive plan by negatively affecting natural resources.
In April the Albemarle County Architectural Review Board voted not to support the tower, but in May issued a certificate of appropriateness only for the ground equipment associated with the structure.
Designs showed the ground equipment would be surrounded by shrubs and a chain-link fence.
Commissioner Tim Keller ultimately voted against the tower, but said before the vote that his decision had not been easy.
“I am really torn. I wanted to say it before a vote, because…it is just really difficult,” he said. “It is really a win-win or a no-win, depending on if you are a cup half-full or cup half-empty person.”