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Madison County OKs cell tower near Somerset

Madison County OKs cell tower near Somerset

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Madison County Supervisors have approved a special use permit (SUP) to construct a cell tower near the Madison-Orange county line near Uno.

The application, submitted by Community Wireless Structures (CWS), was the subject of a joint public hearing of the supervisors and planning commission last week. The company submitted the more than 100-page application in early September seeking an indefinite SUP to develop a wireless communication facility, or cell tower, on 10,000 sq. ft. of a 376.2-acre parcel owned by M&W Farm, LLC. The property is located off South Blue Ridge Turnpike between Somerset and Uno.

The facility would consist of a 50-foot by 100-foot fenced-in compound with a 175 –foot tall monopole tower. The tower would have an attached four-foot lightning rod. Initially, the tower was supposed to be 199 feet, but the height was decreased following a request from the State Historic Preservation Office. The office also requested the pole be painted with a non-reflective paint and be a monopole instead of a more traditional lattice design. The decrease in height was also part of negotiations with landowners to minimize the structure’s impact on the area’s viewshed. Following the incorporation of its requests, the preservation office found the proposed structure to have “no adverse impact” on historic resources in the area.

CWS legal representative Butch Davies said the project has been in the works for quite some time with the company first seeking a site in the area approximately three years ago. Locations were evaluated in both Madison and Orange counties before the M&W Farm property was chosen. The location, Davies said, provides significant service to an area that is not currently served. It’s also within 3-5.5 miles of another tower, namely the one located at Montpelier. CWS said the tower will serve citizens, businesses, visitors and emergency personnel in an underserved area, along with those traveling along portions of Rt. 20 and Rt. 231. The tower will include space for use by the county’s emergency services. Davies said two companies are already interested in locating on the tower including Verizon.

“It really fills in and covers the hole in donut,” Davies said about the impact the tower will have on the lack of service currently on Rt. 231 and Route 20. “It offers access to fixed wireless broadband and mobile wireless, plus improved public safety.”

Madison County Director of Emergency Communications Brian Gordon echoed that sentiment in a letter to county administrator Jack Hobbs. Gordon said the tower would be beneficial to public safety since currently there is little to no service in that area of the county. He said in most cases a call to 911 from the area would be directed to Orange County Emergency Communications, which could result in a delay in services. The tower, he said, would offer service to the area, eliminating the problem for most 911 calls. He said the tower would also allow first-responders to have alternate communication during emergency situations in the area.

Planning commissioner Pete Elliott said he spoke to longtime fire company member Steve Hoffman who said when in the area that would be served by the tower, currently company members can’t communicate back to the firehouse. Elliott said the rescue squad members likely have the same issue.

“If we can save one life with the cell tower going up, we’ve done something great,” he said.

County planner Ligon Webb agreed the tower could be a lifesaver. He said while no one will likely say the tower is pretty, the company has done its best to minimize the effects on the viewshed.

“It comes from not a luxury, but a necessity and in the right circumstances, could be a lifesaver,” Webb said. “I believe the benefits do outweigh the potential unsightliness.”

However, not everyone was convinced.

Somerset property owner Charlotte Tieken submitted a letter asking the supervisors and planning commission to refuse to approve the SUP. She said the tower would be an eyesore and questioned why a new tower is needed, suggesting the existing towers be more fully utilized.

Oak Park resident Jennie Hill Robinson also submitted a letter, stating the proposed tower would be out in the open along a scenic route and said there are other options to offer service with minimal disruption to the county’s beauty.

Chris Hawk with the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) said the agency understands the importance of increasing communications, but also raises the importance of protecting scenic views. He noted that the proposed location is near several resources including the Madison-Barbour Historic District, Rt. 231 which is a scenic byway, the Rapidan River, Somerset Christian Church and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground area. He said the county should enforce a lower height, the use of effective paint colors to provide screening, and the relocation to a better naturally screened area.

Madison County resident George Hamm said he had offered a location on his property which would be encompassed by trees and not on a bald knoll like the proposed location.

Race Ground Road resident William Rother said the photos the company had included with its application were misleading and other locations that were offered would have allowed for a more minimized view of the structure. He also said new technologies are being developed which would utilize satellites for cell phone communications, making cell towers obsolete.

“Don’t impact the landscape forever for a short-time need,” he said.

The planning commission recommended the SUP application for approval 8-0. Planning commissioner Daniel Crigler was absent.

During the board of supervisors’ portion of the public hearing, Hawk again reiterated that the county could request the company look into additional available sites on the same piece of property.

Hamm agreed, asking the county look at other areas.

“I know a lot of time and money has been invested in this, but we’ve invested a lot of time and money in our properties,” he said. “This will be significant. I’m trying to make it less obtrusive. I know it’s an issue and agree we need cell coverage, but you are going to sacrifice one of the prettiest areas in the county.”

Supervisor Charlotte Hoffman said she remembers when the first tower came to the county, people were upset, but now no one notices it.

“This is needed,” she said.

Supervisor Carty Yowell agreed, stating the tower would improve safety and communications. He said the company searched two years for a location, including evaluating a spot on Hamm’s property, but it wasn’t chosen.

Hamm requested at the very least, a decommissioning timeline be added to the SUP to ensure if the tower were to become obsolete, it would be removed within a certain time frame. The county’s zoning ordinance currently contains a decommissioning clause that would apply.

The application was approved 5-0.

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