Loudoun supervisors have voted overwhelmingly to deny AT&T’s application to build a telecommunications monopole at the company’s complex on top of Short Hill Mountain.
The board on Tuesday voted 8-1 against the request, with only Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) supporting the proposal.
The telecom giant is sought to build a 125-foot-high monopole at its secretive facility on top of the mountain, which their representatives said 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. County staff members and the county Planning Commission recommended denying the application.
Residents as well as a wide variety of conservation, historic preservation and other community organizations have voiced their opposition to the tower, recently including the Coalition of Loudoun Towns. The group of the county’s seven town mayors on Sunday sent a letter to supervisors asking them to vote against the tower project.
“We request that the Board of Supervisors not overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation for denial of the proposed AT&T monopole on the ridgeline of the Short Hill Mountain,” the mayors wrote. “There are other alternatives that should be evaluated, such as locating shorter towers on either side of Short Hill, allowing a lower structure by removing the requirement that the tower accommodate three carriers, locating on an existing structure elsewhere—and intensifying your ongoing efforts in expanding other broadband and fiber offerings, and more.”
While acknowledging the need to improve broadband service for area residents and first responders, they suggest county leaders continue to develop a more impactful solution, rather than a “quick fix” that would provide only limited gains.
AT&T has also faced continual distrust from the community around the application.
“You can see the site all over western Loudoun, so it has huge visual impact for very little improved coverage, in the best case scenario, if AT&T is telling the truth this time,” said George’s Mill Farm owner Sam Kroiz, who was a leading figure in the fight against AT&T’s previous application on the site. He said the application could affect not only his views, but his family’s business.
“I have partly an agritourism operation. I have a lot of folks come out on the farm all the time, and they came out to mountain, beautiful scenery that makes people hungry to eat cheese, and that’s a really great thing,” Kroiz said. “The [Loudoun] Farm Tour is coming up in a couple weeks. We’re going to have hundreds if not thousands of visitors out there, and they come to Loudoun for the scenery and the character.”
“Western Loudoun has spoken. The mayor of the town has spoken. Can east and west find unanimity here? Can we come together and listen to each other and what each other’s needs are?” asked Peter Weeks, president of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Is AT&T such a force for good in our society that we are to accept their arguments as altruistic?”
It is not the first time that AT&T’s claims about connectivity have been called into question on that site. During a previous attempt to build a 35-foot-tall facility on top of the mountain, AT&T representatives also claimed that the building would improve connectivity in the area; the county Communications Commission’s research found no evidence that was true. This time, residents and some supervisors were suspicious of the company’s characterization that the cell tower would offer broadband internet service.
Supervisors looked to the county’s longstanding prohibition on towers on ridgelines—although there are others on Short Hill Mountain, it has been nearly 30 years since a new one was approved. The county’s comprehensive plan specifically names Short Hill Mountain as one of the ridgelines to be protected.
“We know how much lack of cell service, lack of broadband, is disruptive in our lives. We’ve seen that with schools over the pandemic,” said district Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin). ”But at the same it’s also extremely hard to ignore the fact that this tower is right on top of the Short Hill ridgeline.”
He pointed out that the Board of Supervisors has been working to expand broadband coverage to the area, including meeting that very night on the county’s ongoing rural broadband initiative.
“It wasn’t an easy decision because of the public health concerns,” Kershner said. “I do think that I will continue to work, and I hope many of the businesses will continue to work, to bring the necessary coverage to those dark spots that do exist in the western part of the county.”
“At some point, when the language in both the comprehensive plan and the telecommunication plan and the zoning ordinance—when all of that is very unequivocal and specifically cites this location as a place that we do not want monopoles, it’s just not in the latitude for me as the Transportation and Land Use [Committee] chair or me as a supervisor to just disregard that language,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn).
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), while noting the gaps in cellular coverage in the area, pointed to decades of consistent policy against building monopoles on top of ridgelines.
“I didn’t see the overwhelming evidence in this case to overturn decades of fairly consistent land use planning,” Letourneau said.
Umstattd said that she supported the project for its expected improvement for cell service for first responders in the area.
“I can’t bring myself to put visual impact ahead of public safety,” she said.
The tower’s shadow could fall on the mountain again nonetheless—despite the massive public outcry against the tower, state Sen. John J. Bell (D-13) has said that if the Board of Supervisors does not approve it, he will seek to override local authority by bringing the issue to the General Assembly.
The Coalition of Loudoun Towns also joined the voices condemning Bell for threatening that unusual step, criticizing it as “highly inappropriate.”
“As government has become more challenging and gridlocked at the state and federal level, local governments continue the daily work to deliver key services to our residents: water, public safety, land use and zoning, multi-modal transportation, and direct community engagement. The decisions at the local level, even more critically—land use decisions—should and must remain separate and distinct from the major issues of state and federal policy,” COLT wrote.“Local governments must be immediately responsive and focused on the local issues. As such, this decision should be made by the local governments and residents directly impacted by the decision.”