The Piedmont View
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"Today, there are roughly 100 cell towers
scattered throughout Albermarle. Thanks
to a little bit of planning, though, most of
them go unseen."

PEC file photo.

Albemarle County’s beauty is no secret. Resting at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its sweeping farmlands and forests are enough to make one’s breath catch. But these stunning views are no accident— they are the result of collaborative planning and innovative regulations.

Sally Thomas served on Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2010, and she knows what it takes to maintain a sense of place and scenic value:

“Some of us on the Board and in the community were concerned about visual issues in Albemarle—such as obtrusive signs along scenic roadways,” Thomas explains. “We supported rulings and decisions that reasonably protected the beauty of the County.”

The concern about visual impacts grew as cell phone usage exploded. Cell phones require cell towers—and as demand for service grew nation-wide, so grew the need for more towers. When hulking towers were proposed in Albemarle, Thomas and her colleagues knew they would need the ability to moderate the construction of wireless facilities:

“Maybe, at first, you just allow one or two giant towers,” says Thomas, “but then it starts to add up... Pretty soon you have a vague feeling that things are just kind of cluttered due to the accumulation of individual, unregulated decisions.”

So in 2000, after conducting research and taking community input, the Board adopted the “Personal Wireless Facilities Policy.” The policy estab-lished guidelines that allowed for the construction of cell towers, but in a such a way that respected the county’s historic and scenic resources. PEC was instrumental in this effort by introducing the County to wireless service expert and consultant Ted Krienes, who Albemarle then hired to help develop this important policy.

The purpose of these regula-tions was not to limit the number of cell towers. In fact, it created a review process that is relatively quick and easy for companies. Yet, this comes with the condition that towers have low visual impact— earth-tone monopoles concealed by trees, with antennae that are only slightly taller than the treeline. The policy also established “avoid-ance areas”—where towers must undergo a more detailed permitting process, but are certainly not ruled out. These include historic districts, areas within 200 feet of scenic byways, or on ridgetops.

According to Kreines, a greater number of shorter towers is not only less intrusive, but can also provide more capacity. And as data intensive cellphone applications increase, it is capacity, not coverage, that is fast becoming the bottleneck in cellular service.

“It made a whole lot of sense for our community,” Thomas explains, “Albemarle County became a model for how to control very visible towers—particularly on scenic mountains.”

Today, there are roughly 100 cell towers scat-tered throughout Albemarle. Thanks to a little bit of planning, though, most of them go unseen.

Recent Calls for Change

Service providers, customers, and county residents have been generally satisfied with Albemarle’s model approach; until recently. The cell industry is now arguing that new technology will require Albemarle to weaken its commitment to limiting the visibility of towers.

PEC recognizes that technology is constantly changing, and we support local governments modifying their policies when necessary. There is little convincing evidence, however, that Albemarle’s current ordinance is limiting consumers’ abilities to get cell service.

“I have seen no proof,” says Jeff Werner, PEC’s Land Use Officer for Albemarle, “that providing cell service should require the county and county residents to compromise their commitment to limiting the visual impact of cell towers.”

Some are quick to blame the regulations for bad service in a few of the County’s rural areas, and for the lack of towers in Southern Albemarle. Yet, a more likely explanation is that the lack of towers is due to a business decision on the part of the cell companies. The reasoning is simple, though not always admitted: towers cost money and providers only want to invest in towers where demand (number of nearby consumers) warrants the costs.

“I am confident Albemarle can meet the needs of the new technology without giving up its original policy objectives,” Werner explains. “But, I do worry that county residents do not realize the pressure the industry is exerting on decision-makers. If people don’t speak up when these changes go to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, the industry will move quickly to take advantage of a weakened policy. Folks would quickly see the results and consequences dotted along our skylines.”

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If the County’s cell tower regulations are weakened, Albemarle’s scenic beauty could be marred by
unnecessarily large cell towers—like the one pictured here. 
Photo by David Anhold

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