Supervisors vote down AT&T cell tower atop Short Hill
By Laura Longley
On Oct. 5, Loudoun County Supervisors brought to a close the long-running battle between the world’s largest telecommunications firm—AT&T—and a small band of rural western Loudoun residents and conservation groups.
In an 8-1 vote—Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) voted for the tower, citing safety response features—the Supervisors upheld the Planning Commission’s unanimous denial of the AT&T proposal earlier this year.
Two days before the critical vote, the seven mayors who form COLT—the Coalition of Loudoun Towns—weighed in with a letter to the Supervisors urging them to not overturn the Planning Commission’s vote to deny the commission’s permit for the project.
They cited the project’s violation of the County’s land-use policies and the long-standing zoning ordinance prohibiting telecommunications’ towers on Loudoun’s ridgelines and the negative impact ridgeline towers would have on Loudoun’s $413.6 million agricultural and tourism economy.
There are alternatives that should be evaluated, the mayors noted, such as “locating shorter towers on either side of Short Hill, allowing a lower structure by removing the requirement that the tower accommodate three carriers, locating on an existing structure elsewhere—and intensifying your ongoing efforts in expanding other broadband and fiber offerings.”
The mayors also spoke of the threat made by Sen. John J. Bell (D-13) to take the AT&T proposal to the Virginia General Assembly for approval.
They wrote, “As government has become more challenging and gridlocked at the state and federal level, local governments continue the daily work to deliver key services to our residents: water, public safety, land use and zoning, multi-modal transportation, and direct community engagement. The decisions at the local level, even more critically—land use decisions—should and must remain separate and distinct from the major issues of state and federal policy. Local governments must be immediately responsive and focused on the local issues. As such, this decision should be made by the local governments and residents directly impacted by the decision.”
Beyond AT&T and the Short Hill: A cell tower too tall for Mickie Gordon Memorial Park?
Mickie Gordon Memorial Park, located just of Rt. 50 a mile east of Middleburg, is a favorite community playing field.
Its 99 acres feature a lighted baseball field, three soccer fields, three more baseball fields, two tennis courts, a Little League field, a picnic pavilion, and a small pond for fishing. Soon, the park will gain a cell tower on the baseball field right behind the batter’s box.
Milestone Towers would build the tower at no cost to LCPS; AT&T would lease the tower as its initial carrier. The tower needs enough height to accommodate two additional carriers and their equipment on the pole directly below AT&T’s installation.
How did Loudoun County School System get into the cell tower business, the community wondered? Because (1) LCPS has a Master License Agreement with Milestone Towers, signed in August 2020, and (2) LCPS owns the park, only leasing it to Parks, Recreation and Community Services.
That arrangement meant the Mickie Gordon Park tower could be fast-tracked between April and August.
Milestone Towers and Loudoun County Public Schools
Based in Reston, 20-year-old Milestone Towers has constructed more than 130 towers to date, including installations in Fairfax, Fauquier, Prince William, and now Loudoun counties.
Milestone’s business model is built around master licenses like its Loudoun agreement, which lock up school districts and therefore the land their schools occupy. Without the obstacle of finding and buying private property, the company can move forward with a lead carrier such as AT&T and construct a tower tall enough to accommodate future, secondary carriers such as Verizon or T-Mobile.
In the case of Mickie Gordon Park’s tower, Milestone anticipates three additional carriers, which will require more transmission and reception antennas at the top. Milestone also offers FirstNet to improve communications with fire, rescue, and other public safety units.
Among Milestone Towers’ selling points to Loudoun residents who might see their lives and property negatively impacted by a tower is the $40,000 site fee paid to LCPS and the 40 percent of gross revenues that the public-private project promises to yield for the school district. According to Milestone, that amounts to a $30,000 to $40,000 annual contribution to the school—not a number, however, that will make much of a dent in a school district budget of $1.5 billion.
The location for the new Middleburg area tower was determined by (a) availability of the 99-acre open field with surrounding trees that Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services leases from its owner, LCPS, and (b) AT&T’s aim of enhancing service and adding customers between the park location and Middleburg. There is already an AT&T installation one and a half miles west near the water tower on the Middleburg Community Charter School property.
Community engagement counts
News of cell tower projects often surprise neighbors because projects are initiated between the school district and Milestone.
For starters, the source of information is difficult to find unless you’re familiar with the tower development process. In the case of the Mickie Gordon Memorial Park tower, you have to dig into the LCPS website to its Planning Services page to click on “Future School Sites/Facilities” webpage at https://www.lcps.org/Page/227914
The process begins with Milestone’s site proposal and assessment followed by LCPS review and approval by the LCPS Finance and Operations Committee.
From there the application goes through the County land-use process and Board of Supervisors approval, site license agreement, and site development. Along the way, Milestone Towers sends out notices to neighbors, briefs the public—in this case remotely—and conducts a balloon fly to determine tower visibility from various vantage points.
The balloon fly conducted by Milestone at Mickie Gordon Park this past summer, contend neighbors, failed to provide accurate sight lines and exaggerated distances, making everything tiny and thus misleading. They point out that the superimposed tower was not realistic, having just one set of antennas instead of four or five. The vantage points, too, appeared to the residents to have been tweaked to use the tree lines to block the view wherever possible.
Many affected residents also report frustration with the small windows of time available for public comment before School Board approval and prior to a Board of Supervisors vote. In May, for example, Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton appealed to the school board to reject the tower proposal, and yet board members approved it unanimously that same day. Only discussions in a closed call months later—on August 25—appear to have moved the needle and perhaps the tower by several hundred feet.
In that meeting, Milestone Director of Development Matt Penning fielded written questions from neighbors, among them John E. (Jeb) Benedict and his brother Scott Benedict. The Benedicts pointed out that at 185 feet—the height of an 18-story building—the proposed tower would stand 125 feet above the tree line and be visible for miles, likely even requiring aircraft warning lights.
”The Board should consider lower height and different placement,” the Benedicts wrote. “If LCPS concludes Mickie Gordon Memorial Park nonetheless is the appropriate location, it should at least mitigate the impact of the extraordinary tower. It should (a) ensure a lower overall tower height (namely, 120 feet or less) and (b) move the site about 700 feet to the northwest.”
So far, the community has succeeded in pressing Milestone and AT&T, its lead carrier, to lower the structure by 30 feet to 155. Penning has indicated Milestone might be able to lower the tower further and still provide the required service and have room for additional carriers’ equipment.
Milestone also has agreed to move the tower to a spot northwest of the soccer field, well away from its original location at the baseball field.
That move would please Mickie Gordon, the man who organized and coached Middleburg’s Babe Ruth team.
To keep up to date on the Mickie Gordon Park project, visit http://www.mickiegordonparkwireless.com) To check on tower projects that could be coming to a schoolyard near you, visit https://www.lcps.org/Page/227914.