Friday, November 14, 2014

Those darn towers

Most of the Thursday, November 6 meeting of the Goochland Planning Commission dealt with an application for a conditional use permit to allow construction of a communications tower, whose height is not to exceed 199 feet, which would require lighting, on 4.6 acres located approximately 1900 feet east of 1259 Millers Lane.

The Commissioners voted 4-0--Matt Brewer, District 2 was absent-to recommend denial of the application after listening to remarks from 17 speakers, mostly opposed to the tower.

The presentation by the applicant Pegasus Tower Company followed the usual script citing the need to improve communications for public safety and to provide greater speed and connectivity for nearby residents.

Propagation maps that purport to show before and after coverage of the area in question often resemble Rorschach tests or the bottom of a birdcage. The “after” always promises significant improvement in coverage.

All cell tower CUP applications contend that they are badly needed to improve--or in parts of the upper end of the county provide--cell phone service. Now they are touted as a remedy to add capacity for the voracious signal consumption caused by widespread use of smartphones.
Wireless communications,the product of technology and magic often fail to deliver their promise. For instance, two cell towers are clearly visible from the front porch of GOMM world headquarters, yet cell phones rarely display more than two bars. Downloading items to a 4G Kindle here requires standing in the front yard and extending the device skyward toward these towers to supplicate the signal gods.

Cell towers are ugly. The faux tree cell towers intended to disguise the apparatus in forests are more noticeable than the steel variety.
Once again, this CUP application forces local government to decide whose property rights, the owner of the site of the proposed tower or its neighbors, trumps the other.

The site of the proposed Pegasus tower is smack dab in the middle of the high end horse country that defines the notion of “rural enhancement area” that appears often in the Goochland Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

A good bit of the land in the vicinity of the proposed tower is open pasture that affords no visual shelter for a tall steel rod reaching for the sky. To make matters worse, a family is in the process of building its dream home 250 feet from the proposed tower’s base.

Goochland’s own zoning ordinance encourages placement of cell towers in non-residential areas where the impact on the community will be minimal.
The balloon test held to illustrate the height and visibility of the proposed tower was also criticized by the neighbors who contended that its duration was shorter than promised, supposedly the result of windy conditions.

A small airport is also in the neighborhood. A report from the FAA opining that the proposed tower would not interfere with flight operations was presented as an after-thought and not included in the packet.

Property in the shadow of the tower location is protected by a conservation easement to protect, among other attributes, its scenic beauty.
Neighbors of the proposed tower turned out to object the tower’s placement in the center of their universe. Others contended that cell phone service needs improvement.

Opponents were eloquent and well prepared. A contention that the tower would have a negative impact on property values for nearby homes was supported by data that suggested a 20 percent reduction in sales price for a home in Rivergate located near a tower. The Pegasus team countered that the Rivergate tower is a lattice, rather than the proposed monopole design.

Ross Mackenzie combined his poetic gift of language and scholarship of the ethos of American governance to declare that to let the right of one property owner trump the rights of many nearby property owners violates the implied compact between the government and its citizens not to change the rules in the middle of the game. That betrayal of the that trust, he said, is incomprehensible.

Opponents expressed skepticism about the need for the tower there and its positive impact on local cell service and characterized the expressed need as “vague and generic.” The Pegasus representative’s responses to questions about service improvements were also vague and generic.
The commissioners had their own reservations about the application.

Commission Chair Joe Andrews, District 4, said that he struggled with the application but believes that the tower needs to be somewhere else.
Tom Rockecharlie, District 5, said that he walked the subject property and had service for his phone.

Derek Murray, District 3 probes about supposed coverage improvements were met with carefully parsed responses that tap danced around the question.

John Myer, District 1, expressed safety concerns with the proximity of the proposed tower to homes. He asked if parts of the towers could become “guided missiles” in 75 mph winds. The Pegasus team contended that the tower is built to collapse in its own footprint, but had “no data” about equipment on the tower.

The tower application now moves to the Supervisors, who have the final say in the matter. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this one. In past land use decisions, they have tried to be consistent across the county.
Last year, the Board approved a similar cell tower CUP, also located among homes near Randolph School. Similar arguments were made by nearby homeowners and tower companies. That CUP was approved, and the tower built earlier this year. To date, no communications equipment is deployed on this tower, which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

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