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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mason residents disagree about need for cell tower at Parklawn pool

Parklawn resident Michael Gates of PACACT argues against putting up a cell tower at the Parklawn pool.

As people for and against the proposed cell tower at the Parklawn pool argued their positions at a lively meeting of the Mason District Land Use Committee March 26, it basically boiled down to aesthetics vs. coverage.

People who live close to where the tower would be constructed called it an eyesore that would degrade the neighborhood, while those who support it (and generally live farther away) argued that cell service is crucial, especially when there’s an emergency.

According to AT&T representative Ed Donohue, the tower is needed to address capacity issues—due to skyrocketing data use—as well as filling gaps where there is no coverage.

The MDLUC did not have a quorum—only four of its seven members were present—so the group deferred taking a position on the issue. [The committee also deferred action on a proposal for infill development on Peace Valley Lane; we’ll report on that in a future blog post.]

MDLUC Chair Daniel Aminoff said that if the cell tower proposal is on the agenda of the May 22 Fairfax County Planning Commission meeting, the MDLUC will vote on it April 23. If the Planning Commission hears the proposal in June, which appears to be more likely at this point, the MDLUC will consider it May 28. If the Planning Commission approves a project, the next step is a vote by the Board of Supervisors.

MDLUC votes are non-binding, although the committee can ask a developer to revise a project proposal to make it more palatable to community residents.

AT&T rejects alternatives

When the MDLUC heard the cell tower proposal in February, the committee complained that Donohue failed to present maps pinpointing where cell coverage is lacking and  failed to describe alternative sites for the tower. So this time, Donohue showed a series of slides illustrating how the Parklawn location and alternative sites would fill the gap in cell service.

According to AT&T engineer Shashi Sena, none of the alternative sites—including Peace Lutheran Church, Dowden Terrace, William Ramsey Elementary School, Glasgow Middle School, and the Fountains of Alexandria condominiums—would provide as much coverage as the Parklawn pool. Some of the sites appear to cover the area, but AT&T doesn’t consider them feasible. The city of Alexandria is not likely to allow a cell tower at Ramsey, for example.

In response to Parklawn residents’ complaints that disguising the cell tower as a tree would make it even more of an eyesore, Donohue showed pictures of what it would like as a bare pole. Those pictures, however, didn’t show what it would look like if additional cell carriers were added.

The majority of members of the Parklawn Recreation Association support the tower, said PRA President Heath Brown. Improved cellular service would lead to more business investments in the area and improve safety by ensuring access to emergency services to report crime and suspicious activity. He also said the additional revenue the tower would bring to the PRA would “prevent the pool from becoming a troublesome eyesore.” 

 Out of character

Michael Gates of PACACT (Parklawn Area Citizens Against Cell Towers) argued against the cell tower, calling at a 13-story “industrial structure” that would rise 50 to 75 feet above the tree line and be “out of character for an established, residential neighborhood.”

According to Gates, crime is not a problem in the park area near the pool. He cited police reports showing only four incidents since 2010. The tower itself would be a safety issue if it falls down during a storm, he noted.

A resident of Teton Place said the tower would loom over the backyard of the house he bought in August. “If I knew about this tower, I would have walked away,” he said.

In response to concerns raised about RF emissions from the tower, Donohue said evaluations show the emissions would be well below acceptable standards. The MDLUC doesn’t consider health issues, anyway; it’s only concerned with land use issues, said Aminoff.

Lack of cell coverage
Cell tower supporter Austin Bozarth, a resident of Heywood Glen, complained that he needs three Wi-Fi hubs in his house because it’s at a lower elevation and there is no cell coverage. He’s also concerned about the safety of people walking in the park because he’s seen naked men and piles of beer cans there.

“If Heywood Glen has a coverage problem, why not put the tower there?” someone in the audience suggested. That won’t work because the area is a floodplain, someone else said.

Becky Choi, one of the founders of PACACT, said expressed confusion  about whether the tower is really needed.  AT&T’s map showing consumer complaints doesn’t indicate when the complaints were logged or what they were for, she noted.

Someone else proposed AT&T conduct a drive-through evaluation to pinpoint exactly where there is currently no coverage. Donohue said that could be done but he insisted the “predictive test” already conducted, and reflected in the slides, provides better results.

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