A hectic month of worry for Loudouners around Short Hill Mountain came to a close with a unanimous Board of Supervisors vote Thursday evening.
Supervisors voted unanimously, and in some cases enthusiastically, to overturn the commission permit that would have allowed AT&T to build a 160,000-square-foot aboveground facility on top of its already-existing underground facility atop Short Hill Mountain.
There was no disagreement over whether to deny the permit, only why—although AT&T has asked to withdraw the permit, the public asked the board to turn down the permit based on the contents of the application.
“Please shift away from the position that seems more loyal to AT&T,” said Lovettsville resident Sarah Stinger, who brought concerns about the facility’s runoff and use of water to the board at previous meetings. “I know that’s what they’ve asked you to do. Instead, take a position that’s more loyal to us, your constituents.” She said cancelling the permit based on the AT&T withdrawal “is like a Band-Aid. Instead, suture this ugly wound closed so that it can heal.”
Residents have worried that merely allowing AT&T to withdraw leaves the door open to another attempt to build on top of Short Hill. Western Loudoun resident and Rural Economic Development Council member Malcolm Baldwin encouraged the board to take a strong stance.
“You must not fear a lawsuit,” Baldwin said. “You couldn’t have a stronger suit.”
“I’ve been in the county since I was 3, and everybody, every supervisor who sat on this board, has worked hard to keep western Loudoun, western Loudoun,” said David Radford. “The supervisors for the last 30, 40 years have tried to get that in place. This ruins it and starts whole new precedents.”
Others are still worried about a commission permit process that nearly allowed a gigantic, industrial facility on top of Short Hill Mountain.
“The board part of this process appears like it’s going to work, and like this permit is going to get overruled, but the rest of this whole process leaves me with a lot of questions,” said Sam Kroiz, whose family owns a farm at the base of Short Hill. “I’m glad that we’re here where we are, but this got way, way too close to actually happening.”
But supervisors and County Attorney Leo Rogers said overturning the commission permit because of AT&T’s withdrawal is the safest legal option for the county.
“The only way this applicant can walk out of here tonight with a chance to build this facility is if we did the opposite of what this motion is, and did assign findings of merit,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau.
AT&T, supervisors explained, can reapply at any time, regardless of why the application is turned down. Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) said with the application withdrawn, it is no longer before the board, but should be overturned “out of an abundance of caution.” Denying the application for cause, however, could potentially give AT&T an avenue to sue, keeping the issue alive. And, if the telecom giant won the court case, it could possibly use that finding against the county in another application.
“A motion to deny based on the merits is not the best path forward,” Higgins said. “A vote to overrule this decision based on the withdrawal of the application, and to overrule the Planning Commission’s decision, is unappealable.”
At any rate, if AT&T’s representatives are to be believed, there’s no appetite to come back to Short Hill. Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said he asked AT&T representatives what their plans were for the mountain.
“The answer I got is, they want nothing to do with Loudoun County’s permitting process any time in the foreseeable future,” Buffington said. “And I believed them in the way that they said that. They seemed disgusted with it.”
He also said AT&T was not prepared for the public resistance to the project.
“They had no plan for that, and they do not want the black eye that we caused,” Buffington said. “They spent $6 million already, and they walked away from it. I think that is something that we can all be proud of.”
But the residents around Short Hill will keep their eyes on the mountain. AT&T still owns more than 160 acres on Short Hill.
“Will this be the last time that we ever hear from anything at this facility ever?” Higgins said. “As someone said, maybe not, but no motion of the board or board action can guarantee forever.”
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AT&T Abandons Short Hill Development Application