Among the things Albemarle County likes to claim it’s known for, its cell tower ordinance is probably the most unlikely point of pride. The county’s long-standing regulations are credited with forcing wireless structures to keep a low profile, and they’ve been duplicated by other jurisdictions. But with greater demand for strong signals even in rural corners of the county, there’s increasing pressure from industry and county staff to adjust the rules to ease infrastructure expansion. Changes are in the works.
The county drew up its wireless regulations in 2000, and passed its current ordinance in 2004. The policy took an unusual step: Where other municipalities approved towers on a case-by-case basis, Albemarle’s rules were designed to incentivize shorter, unobtrusive poles in order to limit visual impact.
Wireless towers fall into one of three categories in Albemarle. Tier I facilities are generally antennas attached to existing structures, like water towers. Tier II towers are wooden monopoles with flush-mounted antennas that reach no more than 10′ higher than the nearest tallest tree. Anything else, from slightly taller monopoles to 200′ lattice towers, falls into Tier III.
To encourage the use of existing structures and smaller poles, the ordinance allowed staff to rubber stamp Tier I uses, and the Planning Commission to approve Tier II applications. Tier III projects need a special use permit, which costs thousands and requires approval by the Board of Supervisors.
And it worked. The tree-top-height wood towers are now regionally known as “Albemarle County poles,” said County Supervisor Duane Snow, because they became so ubiquitous here.
Bill Fritz, chief of special projects for Albemarle County Community Development, said the county’s approach has been incorporated into a model ordinance now used in other Virginia communities. “We used to be able to say ours was unique, but other jurisdictions have adopted significant portions of what we have,” he said.
But many think it’s time for an update to the rules.
“The reality is, since the policy was adopted in 2000, things have evolved,” said Valerie Long, a Williams Mullen attorney who represents AT&T. “Twelve years have gone by. Opinions and attitudes have changed.”
When the county first started considering its wireless policy, people were willing to put up with mediocre service. That’s not the case any more, Long said. Not only do cell users expect good coverage, more people are using their phones for more uses, and that means more infrastructure.
But the race to keep up with consumer demand coupled with Albemarle’s tight rules and a shifting legal landscape has led to some unintended consequences, she said.
The creation of the Southern Albemarle Rural Historic District in 2007 meant a vast swath of the county became an “avoidance area” with a more strict development review process, and any Tier II tower proposed there was automatically treated as a Tier III application. And in January, a Virginia Supreme Court decision stripped planning commissions of their ability to approve Tier II towers altogether.
As a result, many applications that otherwise would have sailed through approval have been landing in front of the Board of Supervisors, bumped up for greater scrutiny not because of any controversial features, but because underlying rules have shifted. Nearly all such towers are ultimately approved, said Fritz. The process is just longer and more expensive for everyone.
“It required an additional review by the Board of Supervisors, and there’s more staff time involved, and thus more cost involved,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Board hired a consultant to look into updating the ordinance, and county staff sat down with industry representatives in June to hash out possible changes. The resulting staff recommendations suggested loosening many regulations, including allowing poles to reach 60′ regardless of nearby tree height, scrapping limitations on the number of antenna arrays allowed on a single tower, and allowing county staff to approve all Tier II towers. The aim was to streamline the review process for applications that would be expected to get approved anyway, said Fritz.
“That’s one of the things we looked at—whether or not we could have the same level of review,” he said. “The answer was yes.”
But some supervisors balked at what they saw as too much backtracking.
Board Chair Ann Mallek said the ordinance has served the county well, and she doesn’t want to see major changes without serious consideration and public input. “I think that the benefit of our ordinance on the county as a whole is huge when it comes to the viewshed and the scenery that bring so many people here, including millions of tourists every year,” she said. “If we take a big galloping step, there are going to be consequences, and we’re going to have to live with them.”
Duane Snow agreed that preserving some limits was important. But he said he’s received scores of e-mails from his rural constituents pleading for better cell coverage in southern Albemarle, and he favors adjusting tower approval rules to speed the expansion process.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about the mega towers that are a real eyesore,” he said. “We’re doing things tastefully, but we’re making it so it’s a little smoother, without a lot of coming to the Board.”
Fritz said it will be a while before the county adjusts its ordinance, and in the meantime, staff wants to hear from residents.
“It is obvious to anyone who’d done any work in this industry that the usage of wireless technology has significantly changed,” he said. “Does that change translate into a change in what people are willing to accept as impacts? I don’t know. The question hasn’t been asked. We’ll find out.”