What Will a Tower Look Like?

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What is Going On Here? 

AT&T is proposing to erect a 128 foot monopole wireless communications tower, AKA a "monopine tree" on the grounds of Parklawn Recreation Association (PRA) in our community!  The tower would be located on the hill on the right as you make the hairpin turn down the drive to the pool parking lot. The mechanical equipment would be located on the left side of the drive just before you begin to turn right into the final descent into the parking lot. It may not be fenced in.  The proposed site is less than 200  feet from the homes on Crater and Teton Places.  The tower itself would be highly visible to the residents on Crater and Teton Places, Tonto Court, and Everglades and Yellowstone Drives as well as to the residents in Dowden Terrace across Holmes Run.

We are convinced that this telecommunications complex would reduce the property value of nearby homes, and adversely affect the neighborhood aesthetics and quality of life. The tower will be highly visible and will negatively impact the aesthetics and quality of life in the community. The arborist hired by AT&T and/or its installation company says, “the tower itself is so tall it cannot be hidden by vegetation no matter where it is.”

There are very real safety risks involved, too.  If the equipment compound and the tower are not fenced, as has been contemplated, people and pets can get hurt.  These types of structures can draw vandalism.  The tower is proposed to have artificial "tree limbs" to hide the antennae - but these are susceptible to gathering ice and/or falling off due to weather/wind and other damage.  They do not fall straight down, but can fall in a radius of up to 250 feet.  Just like any falling branch, falling ice or artificial branches can cause significant damage to the nearby properties or be fatal for people or pets that are struck.

While we cannot yet measure the negative health effects of the transmissions from the cell tower, we do know that any risk will be elevated because of the tower’s close proximity to residential property, the pool and to the school. We strongly believe that this project should not proceed as planned.

How Did This Happen?  

AT&T and the PRA Board have talked for years, off and on about putting a cell tower on the pool property.  AT&T filed an application in 2009 to put a cell tower on the property down on the land by the area where the tennis courts used to be.  However, their application proved not to be viable because that location was in the flood zone.  A revised application is pending and the location of the tower and its equipment would be as described above.

AT&T does not have any obligation to notify their members or the community of any cell tower applications or proposed locations until the application is going to the Planning Commission for consideration.  AT&T must hold a public hearing at that point and properly notify the adjacent land holders and the community in general.

The PRA Board has opted not to involve their members in the decision.  They did not approach the surrounding communities for input until this year when they distributed some flyers to various houses in each community giving notice of the meeting held on September 11, 2012.  For the first time, PRA  heard a great deal from the community about the opposition to having a cell tower in the community.

What's Next?

The AT&T application for a special exception to the residential zoning was heard by the Board of Supervisors (BOS) on September 10th.  They deferred their decision until September 24th in a abundance of caution as the issue is already headed to court.  The situation is unusual because after the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied the special permit application (that would have granted AT&T the permit to build the tower on PRA land) on July 31st  the BOS did not expect to have to hear the case.  They thought it was over.

But AT&T had the right to ask the BOS to hear the special exception application.

The issue is headed to court because the BZA denial must be appealed to the Fairfax County Circuit Court (and it may possibly end up on federal court depending on what arguments AT&T makes).

So now we wait to hear what the BOS says and the outcome of the BZA appeal.  If the BOS approves the special exception, AT&T has fodder for its appeal of the BZA decision.  If the BOS says no, then AT&T must appeal the BOS decision in addition to the BZA decision.  The appeal could take years - similar denials in Fairfax County in 2009 were not resolved (upholding the denial) until 2012!

Even if the BOS approves the special exception and AT&T gets the BZA decision overturned, the legal actions will not end.  This is because the PRA deed has a covenant on it that says PRA cannot allow a corporation or firm or individual to conduct profit making activities on the land.

Can It Be Stopped?

It can ... but it won't be easy.  DPZ, even though they are public servants, are not easily swayed by public opinion. To be fair, that isn't their job. They make their rulings based simply on compliance with regulations. The bottom line is that if the application makes it to the public hearing with the Planning Commission , it will almost certainly be approved.

But there is a way.  If we can demonstrate to AT&T, Supervisor Penny Gross, and the Parklawn Recreation Association that the community is not in favor of the tower, we can have an impact.  Putting a cell tower on or near residential land is not a priority for the county and AT&T will have limited patience to battle it out with the community - and we are in this for the long haul.  It's also bad press for AT&T.  So, faced with enough community opposition, they might decide that it's just not worth it.  That is what happened in other areas.

As we've seen, AT&T is hanging in on this one, likely because of the revenue potential.  Yet we've won a major battle with the Board of Zoning Appeals denial.  The Board of Supervisors cannot overturn that decision.

Why Do These Towers Have to be So Tall? 

Good question. The applications invariably state something like "this is the minimum height required to meet <insert carrier name> coverage requirements".  Baloney.  They want to put multiple carriers on the same pole. Conveniently, this conforms to county guidelines for co-location.  But the antennae need to be 10 feet apart ... so the third carrier will be at least 20 feet from the top of the pole. It seems like maybe 128 (the proposed heights) minus 20 is the real minimum.

What About Those Health Concerns?

The county, the telecommunication companies, and every U.S. Government organization with a say in the matter will tell you that these towers are perfectly safe.  They emit radiation at levels that are thousands of times below FCC standards. This part is true.

But the fact is that the FCC standards are flawed.  They are designed to protect against the short-term thermal affects of radiation; to ensure, in other words, that you don't heat up like a potato in a microwave oven. They refuse to acknowledge the potential for long-term biological effects of constant exposure.  Elsewhere in the world, standards are generally much stricter.  Independent research has repeatedly demonstrated correlation, if not cause and effect, between proximity to cell towers and various medical conditions.  We can't say for sure that the towers are dangerous ... but we can't honestly say that they are safe either.  We really just don't know.

Some have characterized the recent proliferation of cell phones, antennae, and other forms of wireless communication as the largest biological experiment in human history. Is it really an experiment we want to conduct on our children?

The Telecommunications act of 1996 contains a provision that makes it a violation of Federal law for local governments to deny cell tower applications based on "environmental" factors. This has been widely interpreted to include "health" factors, even though the word "health" is never actually mentioned.  The powerful telecommunications lobby does everything they can to encourage this interpretation, and local governments have been extremely reluctant to consider health-based arguments when evaluating these projects, for fear of ending up in Federal court.  It's enough to make you wonder, sometimes, just who it is that our government is trying to protect.