Sen. John J. Bell (D-13)’s controversial bill to give wireless communications companies broad leeway in where they can put their towers has been sent to the 2023 General Assembly session at his request.
Bell’s Senate Bill 255 would, in effect, have given those companies free reign to build towers up to 200 feet high almost anywhere, overriding local government’s role in those decisions. Local governments would be required to automatically approve any application to build a cell tower up to 200 feet high so long as it either “provides additional wireless coverage or capacity for first responders”—which some Loudoun leaders warned would apply to essentially every cell tower—or is at least four miles away from other towers. The only exception would be in historic districts.
The bill’s provision had been trimmed back to 150 feet and given a sunset date of July 1, 2024 then passed out of committee 9-6, including a yes vote from Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31). But once it reached the Senate floor it was sent back to the Committee on Local Government where on Monday morning Bell asked it be sent to next year’s session.
“We did some deeper diving and found a couple other issues that might be problematic, so I’ve worked with the chair of the Broadband Commission, Sen. [Jennifer B.] Boysko (D-33), and we’re going to study that over the year,” Bell told the committee.
The bill emerged in reaction to a decision by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last year to deny an application from AT&T to build a cell tower on top of Short Hill Mountain, citing county comprehensive plan language specifically prohibiting putting those towers on ridgelines. The application drew sustained outcry and resistance from residents in the Lovettsville area, which looks up at Short Hill Mountain. Bell had threatened that if the Loudoun board did not side with AT&T on the application he would seek state-level action.
The resulting bill faced opposition from local government and conservation groups alike.
The Senate Committee on Local Government voted unanimously Jan. 31 to continue the bill to 2023.