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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Planning Commission recommends approval of Parklawn cell tower

Planning Commission members (from the left) include James Hart (at-large), Janet Hall (Mason), Chairman Peter Murphy (Springfield), and Frank de la Fe (Hunter Mill).

The Fairfax County Planning Commission unanimously recommended the Board of Supervisors approve an application for a cell tower at the Parklawn pool.

The cell tower issue has been extremely divisive for residents of the Parklawn and Lincolnia Hills/Heywood Glen communities, pitting neighbors against one another. The Planning Commission vote, which came close to midnight July 10, capped many months of meetings and competing petition drives. 

About 20 people testified at the hearing. Those in favor mostly talked about gaps in cell phone coverage and the impact on safety. Opponents focused on the visual impact of the tower and the likelihood of decreased property values, while disputing the claims about lack of coverage.

“The reality is people use cell phones,” said Janet Hall, who represents the Mason District on the Planning Commission, as she summed up her reasons for supporting the proposal. “Most young people don’t have land lines, and when people retire they don’t want to pay for a land line and a cell phone. The reality is people want the service.”

“The people on Teton are going to see the pole,” Hall said, referring to the street where it would be the most visually intrusive. It can’t be disguised, she said, but “a single pole will not degrade the area.”

The proposal will be taken up by the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals July 17, 9 a.m. It then goes to the Board of Supervisors. That hearing has not been scheduled yet.

Ed Donohue, representing AT&T, told the Planning Commission the 128-foot tower is needed because there are areas surrounding the Parklawn pool with no coverage and because the growth in demand for data is straining the capacity of existing networks.

Alternative sites—including Glasgow Middle School, Ramsey and Parklawn elementary schools, Peace Lutheran Church, and the Fountain condominiums—aren’t acceptable, Donohue said. AT&T would prefer to co-locate the monopole on an existing site, but that won’t work either, he said.

AT&T modified its original plans for a monopole disguised as a tree in favor of a plain monopole with a graduated paint scheme ranging from brown at the base to blue on top because it would blend in better with the environment, Donohue said.

Impact on property values

That approach didn’t appease the critics. Donald Bisenius, of Faith Court, called the proposed tower “an unsightly blemish” that will cause “irreparable damage to the aesthetic beauty of the Holmes Run area.” He paid a premium for a house overlooking the park, he said, and is now concerned that the value of his home will decline.

Rob Stapleton said he wouldn’t have bought his house on Teton Place if he know there would be a “13-story monstrosity” towering above it. “There’s no way to mitigate the visual impact,” he said. Thomas Kelly said he hasn’t gotten a single offer for his house on Crater Place in the past 50 days and thinks it’s because signs nearby advertising the cell tower hearing are discouraging buyers.

Both Hall and Planning Commission Chairman Peter Murphy said studies have shown that cell towers don’t harm housing values. Oakleigh Thorne, representing Thorne Consultants, a firm hired by Donohue to evaluate the tower’s potential effect on property values found “no discernible negative impact.”

The tower “will destroy the character of the neighborhood,” said Steve Barrett, who lives close to the proposed site on Crater Place, and said he’s lost friendships over the issue.

Barrett also called AT&T’s simulated photos of what the tower would look like from various vantage points “misleading” because they purposefully minimize the visual impact.

A couple of people in favor of the tower noted that there already are utility poles all over the neighborhood.

Mike Gates, speaking on behalf of Parklawn Area Citizens Against Cell Towers (PACACT), said that group opposes the tower because AT&T hasn’t failed to demonstrate a coverage gap and didn’t adequately consider alternative sites, the tower would have a “massive aesthetic negative impact,” and is inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Phone service gaps

Several people who supported the cell tower spoke about gaps of cell phone coverage. William Larme, president of the Lincolnia Hills/Heywood Glen Civic Association, said people on Holmes Run Trail need assurances that they can access 911 services it they run into trouble. Others cited the possibility of medical emergencies and incidents involving naked intruders.

“This is about public safety,” said Stephanie Liller, of Hillcrest Place, who said she worries about her children running in Holmes Run Park without cell coverage. Ivy Sinaiko, of Larstan Drive, said when the land lines were disrupted during a snowstorm in 2010 she was unable to use a cell phone to maintain contact with her elderly father.

Janet Hall affirmed those concerns, noting that she went to the site of the proposed monopole the day of the hearing and couldn’t get service on her iPhone.

Those opposed to the tower said they have no trouble getting cell coverage. Becky Choi of  PACACT, said she participated in a 911 test involving four carriers that found no problems accessing emergency services.

At least a couple of people indicated that cell tower proponents are exaggerating the coverage problems because they want the Parklawn Recreation Association to benefit from tower’s rental income.

In response to supporters’ concerns about safety, several people opposed to the tower raised the issue of potential dangers of the tower itself: It could fall down in a storm or catch fire. Choi noted that a massive fire destroyed a cell tower in Bucks County, Pa., in June.

If people are so concerned about safety, there are many old utility poles that could also fall down, Murphy noted.

A couple of people against the tower mentioned provisions in the Parklawn Recreation Association’s covenants that ban use of the property for commercial enterprises. Hall said that’s a private issue, not under jurisdiction of the county.

Following the commission’s vote to endorse the project, Choi said, “We are disappointed and will move ahead as needed to continue opposing the imposition of this 13-story structure where it is not needed.”


  1. Please be clear that Janet Hall is on the planning commission but rarely represents the interest of Mason District.

  2. Janet Hall stated she went to parklawn and could not make a phone call on her cell phone. She also stated that she got rid of her land line ( so please follow up if she is avoiding taxes ) .

    She stated that she could not get a call and she also got testimonials from life guards who happenn to be from another country and I'm sure her attitude of intimidation made sure they answered the way she wanted them to .

    Life guards at parklawn are on their phones all the time. people call each other from the pool on their phones all time. If the cell phone tower is delayed even one year , I would like to video all the cell phone use that is available there , and use that in a moral ethics paper I am writing about about why people lie.

    it will be interesting to see how many people have lied about cell phone coverage just to have a tower built . when there is no cell cover issue

    Janet Hall probably lied, but its hard to prove ... I need to go down to the pool with her and show her my phone works , why doesnt hers

    4 bars on the front steps of Parklawn Pool today

    3 bars all around or 4 ... never got below 2 for more than 3-4 feet of walking.

    coverage issues is a farce.... liars I could say ,but they willl have to live with it ....if approved