Albemarle County will soon begin the first comprehensive review in 20 years of its policy and regulations that govern cell towers.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Wednesday, the board supported a project scope that will be part of a request for proposal, or RFP, to hire a consultant to review possible changes to the county’s personal wireless service facilities regulations, which sets requirements for cell towers built in the county.
Bill Fritz, a county development process manager, said the policy was adopted in 2000, and the ordinance was adopted in 2004.
“The policy has never been revisited and changes in the regulations have been largely limited to keep up with changing federal and state regulations, court decisions and changes in technology,” he said. “The RFP proposed by staff would be the first comprehensive review in 20 years.”
The board has previously supported reviewing the regulations, and funding will come from its strategic priorities reserves. Board members have discussed updating the policy for years, mainly during controversial project approvals, such as for a tower at Western Albemarle High School.
Currently, the regulations put wireless facilities and towers into three tiers. Tier I facilities are located within or on existing structures; Tier II facilities are treetop facilities not located within an avoidance area; and Tier III facilities are anything that is neither a Tier I nor a Tier II facility.
Avoidance areas are areas that have “resources of significance to the county and where the unwise siting of Personal Wireless Service Facilities could result in adverse impacts,” the policy states, including state scenic highways, scenic rivers, Virginia byways, national forests, historic districts, agricultural/forestal districts and conservation easements.
Tier I and Tier II facilities do not need special-use permits and are not subject to a public hearing with the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, but Tier III facilities do need a special-use permit.
The consultant’s work will be comprehensive, Fritz said, and it will include updates for technology updates for state and federal law.
The work could also include changes such as “revising or eliminating avoidance areas that cause by-right tier two facilities to be classified as tier three special-use permit facilities; revisions to the ordinance to eliminate the need for special exceptions that have been routinely approved; and allowance of facilities of greater height or lesser design standards in areas for coverage.”
“These are just some ideas — any, all or none of these changes may ultimately be recommended by the consultant, and other things may come up,” Fritz said. “The listing of them today is listed as potential items and it’s not meant to limit other ideas that may be worthy of consideration.”
Fritz said the consultant would do a public engagement process for the review, including meeting with the members of the public and industry representatives, as well as a Planning Commission public hearing and a Board of Supervisors public hearing.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said that in her view, the current policy deals with the negatives of cell towers but that policy also needs to be address the benefits.
“There’s more to cell towers than just visibility, which seems to be the magic word in this community,” she said. “I’m hopeful that that’s what you’re talking about, is looking at it holistically. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be building cell towers everywhere, but certainly just updating into the 21st century and the way that people have to use cell towers.”
Supervisor Liz Palmer asked about educating the public, as the perception in a lot of the rural areas is “the reason why we don’t have cell phone service in some of the areas is that it’s the county policy not to allow cell towers.”
“I think it’s really important for the public to know, especially in those rural areas, that changes in policy for us don’t necessarily create a situation that’s going to make money for the cell phone companies and therefore they will put a tower up in their community,” she said.
Fritz said an education component could be added into the RFP, which he said would be prepared and released soon.