Sen. John J. Bell (D-13) this year filed a bill in the General Assembly that would permit telecom companies to build cell towers up to 200 feet high virtually anywhere.
Senate Bill 255 as filed would amend existing law curbing local authority, adding automatic approval regardless of local zoning for any application to build a cell tower up to 200 feet so long as it either “provides additional wireless coverage or capacity for first responders” or is at least four miles away from other towers. That bill was trimmed back slightly during committee review to limit the exemption to towers up to 150 feet, the equivalent height of about a 10-story building. An existing exemption only covers towers only up to 50 feet.
The Senate Committee on Local Government passed the bill as amended 9-6, including a yes vote from Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31). The bill faces opposition from conservation organizations, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties.
Bell had previously threatened to take state action if the Board of Supervisors denied a controversial proposal by AT&T to build a cell tower on top of Short Hill Mountain, an application that drew uproar and resistance from residents in the area. Citing specific prohibitions against communications towers on ridgelines in the county comprehensive plan, supervisors denied AT&T’s application 8-1, with only Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) in favor.
The bill’s first responder language is particularly friendly to AT&T. One of the telecom giant’s arguments when it sought local approval to build a tower atop Short Hill Mountain was that the tower would also support FirstNet, a separate wireless network dedicated to first responders.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said Bell is now carrying out his threat.
“Sen. Bell is upset that we denied that application, and this is 100% a direct response to that denial,” Buffington said. “He even said at the time if we denied it, he would do this, and so he’s coming through on this threat to do this.”
“Senator Bell’s bill would give wireless companies carte blanche to erect towers anywhere in the state if they provide data demonstrating need,” said Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains President Peter Weeks.
“There are already current limitation on localities on what we can and cannot consider when considering cell tower applications, and those are pretty limiting, to be honest with you,” Buffington said. “So I think that should stay how it is at the state level and leave the rest of it up to the localities—because it’s not like we deny every cell tower application. We’ve approved them recently. We just take a hard look at them and make sure they’re in the right place, and make individual decisions on individual applications based on that. The only one I can think of that we’ve denied recently is—well, the Short Hill.” Bell has not responded to requests for comment left with him and his chief of staff.