The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal for a cell tower at one of the county schools on Wednesday night following some comments from the public for and against it.
The board voted, 5-1, on a proposal from Milestone Communications, a Reston-based company, to build a monopole of up to 125 feet in height on the school’s campus to help address wireless coverage needs in the area. Ann H. Mallek, the supervisor from the White Hall District, was the only one to vote against.
The approval of the tower was met with some hesitance from county staff, some residents who voiced concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting and some members of the Board of Supervisors about issues the tower could have on the visibility in the area, since portions of the tower would stand above the tree line at certain angles from the ground level.
Ultimately, the decision came down to the advantages it could serve to aspects such as education and public safety.
The cell tower proposal consisted of the installation of a 125-foot-tall monopole with three arrays of platform-mounted antennae located in a 3,610-square-foot fenced-in compound, according to a summary of the project provided by county staff.
The proposal suggests the structure could serve as many as five carriers. The tower would be placed in the southwestern portion of Albemarle High’s campus between the track and the baseball field — 600 feet from the school building.
Milestone initially would give the county school division $20,000 as a one-time payment at the time of construction to use the land, with an additional $5,000 for each carrier that decides to locate on the tower. In exchange for using the space, the company would give the school system 40 percent of the gross revenue generated from leasing space to carriers such as AT&T, according to the summary.
Milestone would enter a long-term ground lease with the School Board that includes a 10-year initial term and four five-year renewals.
Lori Schweller, an attorney representing Milestone, said during a presentation before the public hearing that the company estimates county schools could potentially earn more than $400,000 in a 10-year span with this agreement.
The county school system also would be able to utilize the cell tower for free for its own purposes, should it decide to do so.
“I’m very pleased that the Board of Supervisors made the decision to support the monopole that the School Board approved a while ago,” Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer of the county schools, said after the meeting.
The School Board had discussed the tower in December and unanimously approved it in January. The proposal has made its way through the review process that included the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission.
During the discussion between the supervisors, Mallek was the only one to definitively speak against it. At one point in the discussion, Mallek said the viewshed at Albemarle High was iconic for the county and didn’t want this tower to jeopardize that.
Diantha McKeel, supervisor for the Jack Jouett District, said she received several comments in person and by writing about the cell tower. Other than a few against, McKeel said a large number of her constituents in the Jack Jouett District who live close to the high school asked her to approve the proposal.
Rick Randolph, supervisor for the Scottsville district, said he would vote in favor of the proposal because he believed its impact on the viewshed would not be “jarringly visible” but “acceptably visible.” He also highlighted benefits for public safety and education.
The ultimate approval by the Board of Supervisors, the 5-1 vote, was to approve a tower at 105 feet. This lower height took into consideration a federal law that allows telecommunication tower companies a one-time expansion of 20 feet to existing monopoles. The 105-foot exception would guarantee the tower could not exceed 125 feet, as was initially discussed.
During the public comment period, a handful of residents spoke out. A slight majority of residents were against the proposal, including Charles Stoke, a Jack Jouett District resident who lives close to Albemarle High and the monopole site.
“We had several major concerns about this particular cell tower, one has to do with its location,” Stoke said during the meeting, suggesting that there are other places the monopole could be placed rather than this site.
Some residents brought up health concerns with radio frequency radiation and cell towers. However, according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local and state officials are prohibited from citing scientific evidence — either for or against the notion that cell towers as a public or environmental health concern — as the basis for their decision to approve or reject cell towers.
Aside from wireless coverage for residents and students both at the surrounding schools and those who lived in the area, the benefits to public safety also were discussed. Albemarle County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston and county police Chief Major Ron Lantz are both in support of the cell tower because of the enhanced coverage it would bring to the north and northwest areas of the county.
The proposal also had the support of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We understand that it will involve a 125[-foot] monopole set back on the AHS property, and we are aware that the monopole will be visible from Hydraulic Road, very similar to the existing athletic field and parking lot light poles,” the CBIC wrote in a letter addressed to the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. “We strongly believe that the benefits of this facility will provide to the students, faculty and administration at Greer, Jack Jouett and Albemarle High School would outweigh any visual impacts to passing drivers.”
Tistadt said after the meeting that the county schools and Milestone will now work out a lease agreement for the tower in order for the project to move forward. He said he hopes to get it on the School Board’s agenda soon, possibly as soon as the end of this month for information. After that, it could be finalized at a later board meeting.