By Roger L. Vance
Without much fanfare and with little awareness among the general population, the Loudoun County Planning Commission last week approved a request that may dramatically alter one of region’s most pristine and extraordinary vistas. While the applicant may have very well met the letter of the law and the commission may have, likewise, followed its proper
procedures accordingly, a fundamental question has been raised that warrants deeper examination and consideration: “Whose view—or view shed—is it anyway?”
The particular subject is a request by Parsons Environment and Infrastructure Group on behalf of telecommunications giant AT&T to expand an existing facility on the ridgeline of Short Hill Mountain, approximately four miles northeast of the intersection of Rt. 9 and Harpers Ferry Road. The existing switching facility, most of which is underground, occupies a portion of about 15 cleared acres of some 176 acres owned by AT&T on the mountain. According to the applicant, the addition is to “install modern telephone transmission and processing equipment to support the switching facility.”
Currently, looking at the ridge from the west and east, a daytime observer will notice a substantial unnatural notch in the tree line at the location, but no structure is visible. Some lights can be seen at night. This break in the ridgeline is the only manmade interruption of a mountain that stretches some 15 miles from just northwest of Purcellville to the Potomac River, (the only other break in Virginia is the narrow Hillsboro Gap carved by Catoctin Creek). The mountain then continues across Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
The Short Hill runs parallel to the larger Blue Ridge range to the northwest. Our nation’s settlers, pioneers and founding fathers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, would still readily recognize these ridges and vistas more than two centuries after they traversed through them.
The proposal by AT&T is for the construction, atop its existing underground facility (which dates from 1963) of a 160,000-square-foot structure with a footprint of about 95,000 square feet. The building is proposed to be more than 400 feet in length with the majority of it standing 35 feet tall.
Despite of the applicant’s proposed mitigation and disguising efforts, there is no denying that this massive structure will be visible from miles away, a prominent manmade scar on an otherwise undisturbed natural feature that has dominated the landscape for eons.
Ignoring the debate about the merits or needs (or actual purpose) of the facility; or the right of the applicant to build it under the county’s Revised General Plan and Zoning Ordinance and the process used to inform the public, a larger question looms. Does this county—do we as citizens—have the obligation or the will to protect its most precious and dwindling natural resources, namely the open spaces and majestic viewsheds that can never be replaced or restored once they are gone?
While the policies put into place by Loudoun County may have been dutifully followed, all must admit and recognize that there was very little public awareness of this proposal prior to last week’s public hearing. In addition to engendering suspicions that may be unwarranted, this lack of public input forecloses the kind of thoughtful discourse that should serve as a guide to policymakers and our public officials. The applicant’s responses to questions about the height requirements for the facility were unconvincing. Former Planning Commission Chairman Al Van Huyck’s public statements were on point with regard to the inadequate study of the impacts on the environment, viewsheds and the rural/recreational economy, and a lack of any independent expert analysis altogether.
Protecting our natural resources such as the Short Hill has implications far beyond the aesthetic and far beyond our present. This particular stretch of mountainside has been protected by decades of dedicated efforts for conservation alongside thoughtful rural and agricultural economic development. With the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship as an anchor, a proposed state park will further this area’s preservation and accessibility as a destination for nature and recreation lovers from Loudoun and beyond.
Eugene Scheel, the Catoctin District representative on the Planning Commission, posed a pointed question to county staff that needs to be considered by all of us: “Is there not any concern about Short Hill, one of the great natural resources not only of Loudoun County but of the Virginia Piedmont… a mountain that is such a tremendous resource to this county?”
There does remain further review of this development. In approving a commission permit, the Planning Commission determined the general location, character and the extent of the proposal is substantially in accord with the county’s adopted comprehensive plan. Yes or no was the only option, although some commissioners sought to discuss reasonable alternatives to mitigate what one referred to as an “eyesore.” However, the Board of Supervisors still must ratify or overrule the Planning Commission’s action. For residents, the vast majority of whom had no notice of the proposal, there is one more chance to make their views known to their supervisors. At the very least, re-evaluation of the building’s height should be on the table.
Let’s hope, with this particular application on Short Hill and others surely to come, that future generations won’t be shaking their heads in wonder as to what we were thinking, and ruefully asking, “Whose view was it anyway?”
[Roger L. Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro and former editor of American History magazine.]