Amid intense pressure and scrutiny from Loudouners, AT&T this morning submitted a letter asking the county government to withdraw the commission permit for its plans atop Short Hill Mountain.
“We do not come to this decision easily,” reads the letter, signed by AT&T Principal Technical Architect Scott Rushin. “The facility is a vital part of our global telecommunications network. The upgrades would have provided Loudoun County businesses and residents additional opportunities to receive a wide variety of services such as Wi-Fi, entertainment, high speed internet and, eventually, enhanced wireless broadband services. And, contrary to speculation, the site is not a data center and our planned upgrade would not have converted it into one.”
An AT&T spokesperson declined to give further comment.
The project drew controversy since it was granted a permit by the Planning Commission. Residents from around Short Hill rallied to ask county supervisors to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision. A passionate community of residents launched into exhaustive research into the facility on top of the mountain—and for legally sound reasons for the board to deny the commission permit.
That saw some people from around the mountain scouring the county’s General Plan to demonstrate that AT&T’s plans were not, as required in the commission permit, in substantial compliance with those policies. Others, including leading experts in telecommunications, pored over AT&T’s submitted plans, expressing strong skepticism that the proposed facility was indeed a transmission substation as the communications giant claimed.
“It’s a real relief,” said Sam Kroiz, one of the de facto leaders of the hundreds-strong opposition to the project. “The project was going to be so bad, but to me I was always even more concerned about the precedent in terms of skirting the mountain overlay district and weakening the zoning laws. Just the fact of it being on a commission permit when it shouldn’t have been.”
Kroiz said he was “feeling pretty confident” about a Board of Supervisors vote against the project, but “this is better.” He also said he will continue to seek an official zoning determination on the site—something which county staff has not yet provided, but which he hopes may clarify what is and is not allowed on the property and put up another barrier to building on top of the mountain.
Laurie Hailey, who also lives nearby the mountain, said she is “doing a happy dance.”
“It feels wonderful,” Hailey said. “I’ve been in Loudoun County for 40 years, and I’ve met an array of amazing people from this, so if nothing else comes from this, I think the community coming together was just wonderful.”
Like Kroiz, Hailey said she will still be keeping an eye on AT&T’s mountaintop facility.
“I’m a little skeptical, because they spent so much money starting this project before they got the actual permit, so I think it’s going to be a continual effort,” Hailey said.
Catoctin District Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R) and Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R) helped lead the fight against the data center in the Board of Supervisors.
“I really want to commend AT&T for making the decision,” Higgins said. “For them to have a lot invested in it was not an easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”
Higgins said the height and size of the proposed building did not protect Short Hill Mountain as dictated in the county’s General Plan.
“If we had to work on reasons for denial, that’s what we would have looked at,” Higgins said.
Buffington agreed that AT&T’s plans were not in keeping with “the rural historic and scenic character of western Loudoun,” and both said people living around the mountain were to credit for stopping the project.
“I think they deserve the bulk of the credit,” Buffington said. “We as their representatives definitely helped and assisted in the matter, but I think that they, as the people of western Loudoun, saw this as an issue that was very important to them, and rather than sit aside idly as something happened that they disagreed with, they came out and made their position clear.”
Higgins now expects the board to vote down the commission permit based on the applicant’s request for withdrawal, rather than the merits of the application. According to County Attorney Leo Rogers, this does leave the door open for another application.
“If the Board turns down an application because it is withdrawn, then the applicant can reapply with essentially the same application or with changes as it deems appropriate,” Rogers said. “If the Board were to turn it down for cause, then the applicant would need to revise its application to address those causes.”
Director of Planning and Zoning Ricky Barker said although AT&T has approval to do interior work on the existing, underground structure, it cannot now build its proposed 160,000 square foot facility.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to pursue anything any time in the immediate future,” Barker said.
“Please be assured that we aspire to be good neighbors,” AT&T wrote in its withdrawal. “We are grateful to staff, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, and the community for the robust dialogue about the site.”