Cell tower rejected

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By John Barnhart

Bedford County's planning commission said no, Monday night, to a proposal to extend an existing cell tower's height by 20 feet.

The cell tower, located in the Chamblissburg area, belongs to TowerCo. There are two cell towers on the site and the proposal would involve eliminating one of them.

Another proposal by TowerCo, which would also eliminate one of the towers, was approved last year by the planning commission. It involved retaining an overall 80 foot height for the one remaining tower. A 30-by-30 foot platform would be built at the 60-foot level with four mini-towers, for antenna arrays, attached to the platform. This proposal reached the board of supervisors, but the supervisors have not yet taken action on it.

TowerCo is currently involved in litigation with Neal and Ralph Saunders. The brothers are executors for their late mother's estate and the property on which the towers are located was hers. They contend that the lease agreement for the tower site specified only one tower and that the second tower violates that lease. Bedford County's circuit court agreed with them, but TowerCo appealed. The appeal is currently pending before the Virginia Supreme Court.

Mike Pace, a Roanoke attorney who represented TowerCo before the planning commission, said that the company is seeking the approval for the tower extension so that the supervisors can consider both options at the same time. He said that the height extension proposal would allow them to present two options to the supervisors. Pace said that his client plans to proceed with the platform proposal if the supervisors approve it.

The proposal presented to the planning commission, Monday night, would replace an existing 80-foot tower, bearing one antenna array, with a 100-foot tower bearing two arrays at the 80 and 100-foot levels. A third array could be placed at the 90-foot level at a later time. The existing towers are not easily visible but simulated photos showing what the proposed tower would look like indicated that it would extend well above the treeline.

The county has a policy of limiting cell towers to a maximum height of 80-feet. Pace noted that this is a policy, rather than part of county code. It allows a height greater than 80 feet, if warranted. Pace argued that the proposal is warranted because it meets all of the policy's requirements except for the height limit.

A majority of the planning commissioners didn't buy this line of reasoning. District 2 Planning Commissioner Lynn Barnes noted that the additional 20 feet of height only provides a 5 percent increase in coverage.

"I've heard no compelling reason to go to 100 feet," he said.

District 1 Planning Commissioner Rick Crockett said that what they had before them was neither a land use decision nor a service decision. He said that the planning commission was being put in a situation that may be in violation of a contract.

Crockett made a motion to recommend that the supervisors deny TowerCo's request. His motion was approved by a 5-2 vote with District 3 Planning Commissioner Steve Wilkerson and District 6 Planning Commissioner Robin Hartman casting the dissenting votes. Both Hartman and Wilkerson said that they preferred the 100-foot tower to the platform proposal.

The planning commission also heard a report from two planning commissioners who toured a 300-acre area around the former Bunker Hill plant, off Va. 122 between Bedford and Moneta. Lynn Barnes and District 7 Planning Commissioner Curtis Stephens inspected the area after Barnes, last month, questioned whether a decision on zoning the area AV (agricultural village) was appropriate. The commission had voted to consider this at an earlier meeting, but a public hearing had not yet been advertised. The rezoning had been proposed in order to allow the old meat packing plant to be used for commercial purposes again, but Barnes was concerned that the AV zoning would open the door to residential development.

Barnes and Stephens recommended rezoning an area, including the 17-acre plant site, running south of the plant to where Bunker Hill Loop intersects Va. 122, to I-1. Barnes said that they felt this industrial zone fits the uses that they saw in the area.

The area is currently is in an agricultural zone, but there are some non-conforming commercial operations there that predate the 1998 zoning ordinance.