County supervisors have resurrected AT&T’s proposal to put a tower on top of Short Hill Mountain, although some have said that is for mostly procedural reasons.
The telecom giant is seeking to build a 125-foot-high tower at its secretive facility on top of the mountain, which their representatives say would improve AT&T wireless service in the area, provide space for other cell phone and wireless broadband carriers, and expand FirstNet, a separate wireless network dedicated to first responders.
But the project has encountered sustained suspicion and distrust from people living in the area, many of whom were also in the fight to stop the company’s previous application to build a large facility on top of the mountain. Local experts said that building was likely a data center; AT&T still denies that.
The application has three parts in the county’s legislative process: a zoning special exception, a minor special exception, and a commission permit. All three would need to be approved for the tower to be built legally. The Board of Supervisors decides on zoning special exceptions, but the Planning Commission can decide whether to approve commission permits—and the commission denied AT&T’s on June 22. County planners have also recommended against the tower consistently.
County supervisors have 60 days to affirm or overturn the Planning Commission’s decision, and they also have the option to take no action in that time, which would also allow the commission’s decision to stand. Because supervisors do not meet in August, the 60 day time limit will elapse before they hold a public hearing and vote in September.
County Attorney Leo Rogers advised supervisors on July 20 that AT&T is also contesting the Planning Commission’s decision.
“AT&T is alleging that this may have been an approval based on the missing of a deadline by the Planning Commission,” Rogers said. “At this point, whether or not that’s correct, overturning the decision, the board would have the opportunity to fully decide whether or not a commission permit should be issued on this tower or not. I spoke with the counsel for AT&T and they agree with this approach.”
Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said overturning the Planning Commission’s decision was the only way to send the commission permit to a public hearing in September, so they could “check all the correct legal boxes.”
“Because we need to have a public hearing on this item, we need to basically overturn what the Planning Commission did, not because we agree or don’t agree but because we need to give time to have a public hearing,” Randall said.
The successful motion to overturn the Planning Commission vote found that the board “is unable to determine whether the commission permits should be granted or denied without a full opportunity to consider whether the application is consistent with the comprehensive plan.”
The district supervisor, Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), said he is undecided on the application.
“I know that there are individuals on both sides, ultimately, of the AT&T tower. There are really good arguments on both sides,” Kershner said.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), a veteran of AT&T’s previous application during his first term, opposed that vote. He said he would be happy to send the application to a public hearing, but could not support a motion with language overturning the Planning Commission vote.
“As for the general first responder need, I totally understand that, as you know, however there’s a right way to provide that coverage and there’s a wrong way,” Buffington said. And he pointed to strengthened ridgeline protections in the recently revised county comprehensive plan: “And so we now have ridgeline protections, stronger ridgeline protections than we had before in the comp plan, and here comes the first test.”
Supervisors voted 8-1, Buffington opposed, to overturn the commission’s vote and send all three parts of the application to a public hearing Sept. 14.