Distrust and opposition from people living around Short Hill Mountain has thrown up a stumbling block to AT&T’s plans for a cell tower on top of the mountain, with the Planning Commission voting down the telecom giant’s application June 22.
The company has applied for permission to build a 125-foot-high tower at its secretive facility on top of the mountain. That, they say, would not only improve AT&T wireless service in one of the least-connected areas of the county, but also provide space for other cell phone and wireless broadband carriers on the same tower. They also said the tower would expand FirstNet, a separate wireless network dedicated to first responders.
But county staff members advised against approving the tower request, which is in direct opposition to the county comprehensive plan’s protections for ridgelines, and neighbors continued their opposition to building on the mountain that reaches back to 2016, when the company came close to winning approval to build an apparent data center on top of the mountain. The company denied the 160,000-square-foot, 35-foot-high facility would have been a data center, although local experts disagreed.
Then, too, the company said the new facility would improve communications networks in the county; the county’s Communications Commission found no evidence that was the case.
Lingering distrust from that ordeal has carried over into neighbors’ opposition today.
“They were trying to build a data center up there, which they still deny it was a data center, but it totally was,” said Sam Kroiz, one of the leading opponents to the previous application. “So, if you want to see how honest they were, you can ask them if that was a data center or not, because everyone knows it was, but they still deny it.”
He said there are still “a lot of hard feelings in the Lovettsville area.” He also questioned the company’s claims about improving wireless service.
“The coverage map doesn’t make any sense, because if you look at the coverage map, there’s an existing tower that’s right in the middle of a supposed dead zone,” Kroiz said. “I get my service from it currently.”
Others worried that allowing the tower would set a precedent for more towers on ridgelines going forward.
“I’m particularly concerned that if this goes forward, it could really begin to damage the entire future of the mountains, with other alternative uses saying ‘this was approved, therefore we should be approved,’” said former Planning Commission chairman Al Van Huyck. He said he opposed the proposal, but if it is approved, it would need to be using specific language to make it clear to future applicants the Short Hill site was a unique circumstance.
That reflected an argument by AT&T’s representatives that a tower on top of the mountain was the least-bad option, since the site has already been cleared and graded for a facility dating to the 1960s.
“The ridgeline prohibition, to the extent that that exists and that applies here, is specifically to protect views,” said Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr attorney Greg Rapisarda, representing AT&T. “You cannot protect the views by moving this downslope, the views are what they are here.”
Planning Commissioners voted 6-3 to oppose the application, with commissioners Jeff Salmon (Dulles), Michelle Frank (Broad Run) and Mark Miller (Catoctin) opposed to the denial.
“You can say you don’t want a tower here, and then they come in with another application somewhere else, and the same people will come out and say they don’t want it there, and then someone else will say they don’t want it there, and in the end you don’t get what is a utility, in my mind,” Salmon said.
“What troubles me, the people that we are trying to help, the community, they are all opposed to it,” said Commissioner Ad Barnes (Leesburg). “Now we are forcing this coverage on them when they don’t want it. So we are telling them, hey, whether you want it or you don’t want it, we’re going to shove it up your throat.”
“Clearly this is in violation of a very important element in our comprehensive plan to protect the ridgelines, plain and simple,” said Commissioner Roger Vance (Blue Ridge). He also pointed out there are other options for getting broadband service into northwestern Loudoun—work that is ongoing with the Board of Supervisors’ plan to expand broadband throughout the county. He said a tower on Short Hill should not be a “foregone conclusion.”
“I consider myself a public servant sitting up here, and when the community is split, then I think we have a decision to make,” said commission Chairman Forest Hayes (At Large). “When the community is firmly opposed to something—if there are people who are for it, they didn’t show up tonight—it makes our job easy, particularly when the law and policy is very clearly stated.”
For legislative purposes, the application is in three parts—a commission permit, which the Planning Commission can approve or deny; a zoning special exception, on which the Planning Commission advises the Board of Supervisors; and a zoning minor special exception, which goes straight to the board. The Planning Commission’s action denies the commission permit, and recommends the Board of Supervisors deny the special exception. Supervisors have the authority to overturn a Planning Commission decision on a commission permit. All three must be approved for the tower project to proceed legally.