Verizon Wireless has asked the city of Charlottesville to alter its zoning rules to allow for the installation of more microcells and other new technologies that will boost the company’s capacity to provide wireless data transmission to customers.

“They want to put microcells where people congregate and are using their phones for the Internet to try to draw the data off of the large towers,” said city planner Brian Haluska at a recent work session.

“If all the data has to go through the large towers, that jams them up for phone calls,” Haluska said.

Microcells are small stations that can improve reception and increase bandwidth for data transmission.

However, the city’s existing rules prevent the installation of microcells in areas such as Barracks RoadBarracks RoadBarracks Road Shopping Center because none of the structures there exceeds 40 feet.

Currently, no wireless equipment can be installed on buildings below that height.

“Our existing height restrictions were drafted at a time when we knew telecommunications facilities to consist of tall monopoles with big antennas on them,” said Lisa Robertson, deputy city attorney. “We wanted these antennas that were so intrusive to be above ground level so pedestrians walking down the street wouldn’t be confronted with larger antennas as part of the pedestrian experience.”

In October, the Federal Communication Commission clarified how localities can regulate the placement of microcells and other smaller equipment. That has given cellphone companies more leverage to request localities make changes.

Verizon wants the city to permit microcells on existing structures as long as they can’t be seen and wants the city to allow them below 40 feet.

“These new technologies are often inside buildings and fairly small,” Robertson said “They almost look like curtain rods.”

For example, there is currently a microcell on the first floor of the Market Street Parking Garage hidden within glass panels attached to the building.

Robertson said the city’s existing ordinance does not allow any visible antennas and that Verizon wants to continue this trend.

“If we allow in the historic and entrance corridor districts something to be allowed by-right as long as its concealed, we still need to make sure the Board of Architectural Review gets to approve what the concealment structure looks like,” Robertson said.

One commissioner said she didn’t like the idea of the microcells being totally invisible.

“There’s something about the insidiousness of it that bothers me,” Commissioner Genevieve Keller said. “There’s a Big Brother aspect that there’s going to be these things and we don’t even know where they are.”

Robertson said one of the tenets of the Telecommunications Act is that localities are not allowed to consider possible health effects of cell towers when writing regulations.

However, Keller said that by not allowing microcells lower than 40 feet, anyone who believes that exposure to cell towers is a health risk has some protection.

“I do think at this point in time we have the ability to keep this technology 40 feet away from us,” Keller said. “Once we give that up, we can’t recapture it.”

Commissioner Kurt Keesecker suggested that the city could allow placement of microcells below 40 feet with a special-use permit.

Keller said she would like to keep the rules as is, but the four other commissioners present said they would like to explore changing them.

Commissioners Lisa Green and John Santoski were absent.

Staff will draft a suggested ordinance change that will allow microcells at the lower height, but the Planning Commission won’t make a recommendation until a future meeting.

Wireless telecommunication equipment is not allowed in Charlottesville’s residential zoning districts.
 

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