WINCHESTER — The Frederick County Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 on Wednesday night to deny a proposed code amendment that would have made 100-foot tall telecommunications towers west of Interstate 81 a by-right use, meaning no permit or public hearing would be needed to erect them.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Charles DeHaven Jr. and board members Gene Fisher, Judith McCann-Slaughter and Bob Wells voted against the amendment. Supervisors J. Douglas McCarthy, Shawn Graber and Blaine Dunn voted in favor of it.
McCarthy and Graber, who represent the Gainesboro and Back Creek districts, respectively, spearheaded the proposal to help residents west of I-81 improve their internet service.
Telecommunications towers in the county are a by-right use, if they are no more than 50 feet in height from the ground. Towers in excess of 50 feet require a conditional-use permit.
Residents have said taller towers are needed to improve internet service in the county’s more rural areas.
About 20 people spoke during a public hearing on the proposed code amendment. Most favored making taller towers a by-right use.
Gainesboro District resident Angela Bean urged the supervisors to approve the amendment. She said she is a teacher, parent and small business owner who has issues with her internet service. She told the supervisors that she cannot upload grades, work on documents online, or email parents and students. Her daughter, a college student and photographer, is unable to send photos to people via the internet or do homework assignments as a result of their poor internet service.
“I have to put in an extra at least hour-and-a-half of my time every day at school or go to McDonald’s so that I can have a signal to do my job so that I can pay my bills,” Bean said.
Back Creek District resident Windra Bowman said she has an 11-year-old son who is severely autistic. She said the only way he can communicate is with a device on a tablet. If there’s no internet signal and he’s unable to communicate, she said he can have a meltdown that lasts for hours. She said she often ends up in tears.
“Having him be able to communicate is imperative,” Bowman said. “Without reliable internet, it’s as if someone glued your lips shut and someone is trying to talk to you and you know what you want to say, but you have no way to get it out. So for us reliable internet is not a luxury.”.
Other residents encouraged the supervisors to vote against making 100-foot towers a by-right use, because there would be no public input and less oversight.
Opequon District resident Patrick Sowers, speaking on behalf of the Top of Virginia Building Association, said the association’s membership opposed the ordinance change, fearing it would negatively impact rural subdivisions.
To address concerns about the towers being an eyesore, Graber made a motion that they could only be 15-feet above the tree line, with a maximum possible height of 100 feet.
McCarthy disagreed with concerns that approving the amendment would result in towers popping up everywhere.
“I just think there’s a lot of Chicken Little stuff going on where people are saying, ‘The sky is going to fall, the sky is going to fall,’ and example after example across this country prove that wrong,” McCarthy said. “There’s no evidence that proves that this type of ordinance is going to lead to the types of things that people are coming up here tonight fear-mongering and keeping Gainesboro and the Back Creek in the Dark Ages because we can’t get access to the same thing that you and your children in the other districts have access to.”
McCarthy’s statement drew some applause from the crowd.
But Shawnee Supervisor Gene Fisher said students can download important information at school if they do not have reliable internet at home. DeHaven said telecommunication towers should go through “the normal review channels.”
When the board voted against the amendment, several audience members were quick to voice their frustration. One man said residents would vote the supervisors out.
Graber noted that the cost of applying for a CUP to erect a tower is burdensome. Currently, the fee is $7,000. Graber said the board needs to reduce the fee to $750 for commercial providers and $500 for private individuals. McCarthy made a motion to direct the Planning Commission to consider reducing the fees and consider alternatives to the application process. The board approved the motion.