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Friday, July 19, 2013

Board of Zoning Appeals delays decision on Parklawn cell tower

A cell tower in Gilbert's Corner, Va., with a graduated paint scheme like the one proposed for the Parklawn pool.

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) heard the rezoning request to allow construction of a cell tower on property owned by the Parklawn Recreation Association (PRA) July 17 but deferred a decision until July 31.

BZA member James Hart proposed deferring a decision because the members didn’t receive all the emails submitted by the public until that morning, due to a computer glitch, and he wanted to make sure the members have enough time to read them.

The July 31 meeting, at the Fairfax County Government Center at 9 a.m., will be open to the public. There won’t be an opportunity for additional speakers but the BZA will accept comments submitted online in advance.

Last week, the Fairfax County Planning Commission voted to recommend the Board of Supervisors (BOS)  approve the cell tower. The BOS hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet.

During the BZA hearing, supporters of the cell tower, many of them residents of the Lincolnia Hills/Heywood Glen community who belong to the PRA, presented the same arguments they’ve made at previous meetings: The cell tower is needed because there are gaps in cell phone coverage, and it’s a safety issue if people are unable to call emergency services in the case of a medical emergency or criminal activity.

BZA member Nancy Gibb, however, said coverage is not an issue for the BZA. “The only thing we’re concerned with is whether it fits in and if it’s harmonious with the neighborhood,”  she said, and suggested the tower would adversely affect nearby properties.

Another BZA member, Max Beard, acknowledged that he came to the meeting ready to rubber-stamp the tower then indicated he saw it in a different light.

Those comments left Becky Choi, a cell tower opponent who lives near the proposed site, “very hopeful.”

“For the first time, people were willing to listen to us, and their minds were not already made up,” said Choi, a member of a group formed to fight the tower called PACACT (Parklawn Area Citizens Against Cell Towers).

Gibb also questioned AT&T representative Ed Donohue about the simulated photos he submitted showing how the tower would look from various locations. Opponents of the tower had complained  those photos are deceptive by deliberately minimizing its visual impact.

Among those who urged the BZA to approve the tower were PRA President Heath Brown, who said 190 people signed a petition in support of it. It will improve local business opportunities by improving cellular and data access and will enhance safety by allowing reliable cell service along the Holmes Run path, which had been used by criminals as a hiding place, he said.

Austin Bozearth focused on the problems caused by lack of cell coverage for people who work from home, Ivy Sinaiko said poor cell service is a security issue during  storms when landlines are down, and Susan Fernandez talked about encountering scary situations on the trail and being unable to call 911.

While many of the supporters live in the Lincolnia Hills/Heywood Glen community, Heywood Glen resident Kevin Prestwich spoke against it. He said the proposal is inconsistent with provisions in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan that call for cellular facilities to be co-located on existing structures, that recommend the use of microcell technologies, and that discourage towers that would have a negative visual impact or would be out of character with the surrounding area.

Another opponent, Rob Stapleton of Teton Place, said he wouldn’t have purchased his home if he knew a 128-foot tower would be built close by. He said he has no problem with cell service. “will destroy my quiet enjoyment of my home,” just to generate revenue for the PRA.

Teton Place homeowner Brian Dwyer called it an “aesthetic nightmare”  that will “totally destroy our views from both the front and rear of our property,” and “will loom large and be omnipresent in the open sky.”

Steve Barrett, who lives on Crater Place next door to the tower site, urged the BZA to reject the tower because “it would negatively impact our quality of life,” diminish his enjoyment of the park and wildlife, and “compromise our house’s resale potential.”

“Due to the unique topography of the area and the location of our house, we will see the entire tower, and its shadow, and hear the noise 365 days a year. We will look down on the equipment, so no amount of screening will hide it,” he said.

The supporters of the tower only use the Parklawn pool during the summer while a third of the PRA members don’t even live in Fairfax County, Barrett argued. “This is benefiting people in Alexandria—in another tax district—and that’s where the complaints about cell coverage are coming from.”

Zoya Melnichenko, who also lives on Crater Place, told the BZA that she left her home in Ukraine to get away from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. She then had breast cancer and path to recovery includes sitting outside and enjoying the woods. She wouldn’t be able to do that, she said tearfully, with a cell tower overshadowing her home and yard.

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