The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution Sept. 24 to approve a special exception permitting the construction of a 128-foot cell tower on property owned by the Parklawn Recreation Association.
That action follows a BoS hearing Sept. 10 during which more than three dozen residents presented strong, passionate feelings on both sides of the issue.
The SPA would amend the special permit for pool operations on that property approved more than 40 years ago. The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied the SPA in late July, and the cell tower applicant is challenging that decision in circuit court.
Some people think “we should hold our decision until the BZA issue is resolved,” Gross said, but “the Federal Communications Act requires us to act in a timely manner on this type of application.” The BZA waived the one-year waiting period for the applicant to refile, she said, and if that happens, “the BZA could reach a different decision.”
“There are few issues that can be more divisive than installation of a cell tower,” said Gross, noting she received many letters and petitions on the proposal, including four lengthy letters from opponents after the public hearing.
There are lots of cell towers in Mason, and all have been subject to “expressions of concern at some time,” Gross said. “In my experience as Mason District supervisor, within weeks of an installation, the concerns vanish, as the cell tower, in whatever variety selected, fades into the periphery as it becomes one more utility relied on by the community.”
The Parklawn proposal “has been particularly thorny for some community members, especially those who live closest to the site,” Gross said. “We heard about the value of maintaining the Parklawn Pool, fear of walking on Holmes Run trail because cell phones won’t work in the case of an emergency, and concern about home resale values, although realtors differ on this issue.”
“The economic benefit to the pool is not a land use issue and should have no bearing on our decision,” she said.
After reviewing statements from the application, Gross said, “I am concerned that there does not appear to be an alternative site.” According to federal regulations, our ability to deny a particular site “is constrained if there are no other alternative sites available.”
While several speakers at the hearing urged the BoS to consider distributed antenna systems instead of a cell tower, Gross said, “It is my understanding that DAS technology cannot be substituted for cellular service in a stream valley with no existing utility poles.”
She mentioned residents’ concerns that the location of the tower next to the pool roadway and homes would create a safety hazard due to lack of a buffer or safety zone. People who raised those concerns cited codes from other states, which are not applicable here, she said.
Other concerns included the potential collapse of a tower, ice fall, and noise. “While it is impossible to guarantee that nothing will ever happen with a cell tower, the experience we’ve had in Fairfax County during the past couple of decades does not support these issues as reason for denial,” Gross said.
She noted that the staff report recommended approval after careful review “for conformance with the Comprehensive Plan, location, character and extent, urban forestry, and stormwater management.” The staff report acknowledged “some visual impacts may not be fully mitigated for some surrounding properties and recommended a graduated-paint monopole rather than the originally proposed tree pole or ‘monopine.’”
Gross said she wanted to reconfirm with staff that the pole will be limited to two carriers, noting “that will reduce some visual impact.” She also said the Federal Communications Commission “will not require a blinking red light at the top, which alleviates some of the concerns we heard in public testimony.”
According to Gross, several speakers suggested the public benefits outweigh the visual impacts “and that we should take into consideration the greater good in making our decision.” She recalled a session she attended in June with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about the need to have a telecommunications system that can manage “surge capacity” in case of a weather disaster or human-caused emergency. “It is imperative that we have additional coverage to connect our community,” she said.
BoS Chair Sharon Bulova said she supported approval of the decision, calling it “a safety issue.”
The only other supervisor who spoke about the cell tower was Linda Smyth (Providence), who suggested the county have ongoing discussions with the telecommunications industry about better designs for cell facilities rather than just deal with each proposal when it comes up.
“We need to be working with the industry to come up with other options,” Smyth said. “Their tree poles still look like green bottle brushes. In other parts of the country you can have something that looks more like trees. So why can’t we get some of these things here?”