Verizon Wireless Facility in Albemarle (File photo) Credit: Credit: Albemarle County

The Albemarle Board of Supervisors agreed this week to reevaluate the county’s existing wireless communications tower regulations.

Amid a growing number of requests from mobile phone companies for new antennas, coupled with customer demands for higher-bandwidth connections, Albemarle will assess the state of its regulatory process and the impact of wireless towers on the community’s character.

“We really haven’t touched this much since 2000,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s director of current development. “The strongest recommendation we’re making is to speak to a much broader audience.”

County staff have conducted roundtable discussions with representatives from wireless companies and worked with CityScape Consultants to develop a set of recommendations for improving service.

Fritz delivered the recommended changes in four categories: law, design, application submittal requirements, and application review process. The discussion also touched on increasing broadband access throughout the county.

With respect to telecommunication laws, Fritz noted that the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 says a “Local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities’ request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.”

“The problem,” Fritz said, “is that that law doesn’t contain a definition for what a ‘substantial change’ is.”

At a June wireless roundtable, industry representatives suggested the county use the language “substantial increase in the size of the tower,” phrasing used in the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement for the Collocation of Wireless Antennas, to define “substantially change.”

However, county staff wrote in the staff report that they had “concerns and doubts” about that approach. Tower height extensions up to 10 percent and equipment additions projecting out as much as 20 feet from wireless towers wouldn’t count as a “substantial increase in the size of the tower.”

“For example, mountain ridge antennas could become visible over the tree line or a 40-foot monopole could have a 20-foot protrusion mounted to it, and neither of these changes would be considered substantial.”

“If you start out with flush-mounted antenna and you go to arrays that could be 20 feet across, you’ve got a substantial change,” Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said. “We need some definitions.”

Board members also expressed concern over the towers’ potential visibility.

“What’s the impact on visibility … if you can have an unlimited number of antennas?” Rooker said. “All electronic and communication equipment generally is becoming more and more capable of doing things with smaller equipment … yet what we seem to have before us is based upon an assumption that you need bigger and bigger in this industry.”

“You can see from the comments from the roundtable a desire to increase the height above the trees,” Fritz said.

“The other part of that equation is the consumer who wants increased capacity,” Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd added.

But, Rooker replied, “there is no guarantee that you will get more service just because you allow higher-visibility towers.”

When asked by Boyd why the industry would want to increase tower height, Rooker observed that putting up one large tower with many antennas is cheaper than putting up many smaller towers throughout a community.

County Attorney Larry Davis added that while Albemarle has been seen as a leader when addressing aesthetic impacts of wireless towers, “the consultant points out that times have changed.”

“The trend appears that hard line phone lines may become the dinosaurs of the future,” Davis said. “How does the county, within its visual standards … advance a technology? There are tradeoffs to do that. This is a check-in point with the board to see whether or not you’re ready to start making some of those tradeoffs.”

Addressing the proposed changes to the application review process, Boyd likened the suggestions to “opening the floodgates,” and said he was “curious why the staff is proposing that … much relaxation of our current rules and regulations.”

Fritz said that these suggestions reflect the concerns of the wireless industry and the consultant’s report.

While neither industry representatives nor the public spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, attorney Valerie Long, who often represents wireless companies before the board, observed in the audience.

“[I am] encouraged by the thoughtful recommendations that the county’s consultant and staff brought forward for improving the county’s wireless ordinance,” Long said in an email to Dexter Auction. “Such a collaborative process will enable us to streamline the process significantly.”

Discussing broadband services in the county, Fritz noted that “all the states around us … have higher speeds” of mobile broadband service, and “significant portions of the county are not served with mobile broadband.”

These portions of the county, however, are not heavily populated, and a little more than 70 percent of the county already has access to fixed line broadband service.

To encourage broadband deployment to rural areas, staff suggested the county could work with the School Board to utilize its resources, amend the county’s ordinance to make construction of new facilities easier, and work with public agencies to determine availability of public facilities.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she hoped the wireless issue would generate more public input at a future meeting.

“Others think a lot of our model,” Mallek said. “We’ve barely begun to find out what the public wants on this.”