The site of the AT&T cell phone tower in the Key West neighborhood off Route 20 North
The tower will be built on a "critical slope" and will require a zoning waiver.
Courtesy Bob Toplin
For four years now, concerned residents of the Key West neighborhood on Route 20 North have been battling telecommunication giant AT&T over the company's plans to place a 103-foot cell phone tower in the neighborhood. That battle will come to a head on September 11, when the proposal comes up for final approval by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
Armed with research showing that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, that it will depress real estate values, harm the environment, and could potentially cause health problems, Key West residents hope to nix AT&T's plans.
"AT&T is attempting to improve its profits substantially by placing the tower in the middle of our neighborhood," says Key West resident Bob Toplin. "Clearly, the Board of Supervisors ought to stand up for the county’s citizens in a situation such as this."
The Key West neighborhood, just a few miles north of Pantops Shopping Center, is only about six minutes from downtown Charlottesville, but the community enjoys a kind of peace and quietude typically found much farther out in the country. Deer roam the neighborhood in herds, unafraid of being hunted, and long-time residents there— which until earlier this summer included this reporter— are protective of that peace.
"We've evaluated a variety of options, and this site will provide residents of Key West and the surrounding area with the wireless phone and mobile Internet coverage they want and need," says Daniel Langan, a spokesperson for AT&T.
However, during an August 26 meeting with Key West residents at Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Valerie Long, the local attorney representing AT&T, got an earful from Key West residents who do not want, or think they need, a cell tower in their neighborhood. Long assured residents that the tower would be unobtrusive, and that the company was "sensitive to the fact" that residents had concerns. Like Langan, she also explained that the tower was designed to improve and expand existing service in the area, including service for Key West residents.
Toplin and others argue that this isn't a "not in my neighborhood" situation and that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, either on nearby farm property on Route 20, in Pen or Darden Towe parks, or even somewhere on the Meadowcreek Golf Course.
"But AT&T prefers to have the tower on private property at 415 Key West Drive," says Toplin.
Key West Drive snakes through the neighborhood and follows a high, steep ridge on the western edge of the subdivision that provides spectacular views and overlooks the Dunlora and Belvedere neighborhoods— service areas that AT&T wants to target.
Typically, such towers are in more remote locations, high up along mountain ridges or in fields on farmland, but this tower will be within feet of nearby neighbors, one of whom appears to have cut a deal with AT&T. The long-time property owner, Joan Elledge, could not be reached for comment, and she does not live on the property. AT&T is not disclosing the terms of the lease arrangement with Elledge.
"As absentee owners, I guess they do not have to face their many unhappy neighbors on a day-to-day basis and they do not have to live, personally, with the tower," says Toplin, who suspects that AT&T offered the property owners an attractive leasing arrangement for thousands annually.
"The hillside location is nutty for a tower," says Kent Sinclair, who lives right next door to the proposed tower location. "The base of the pole is about 60 feet below the living and sleeping area in our home. Thus the top of the pole where the three six-foot antennas will broadcast is 40 feet above my bedroom."
"Imagine the thought of you coming out of your home and seeing a 103-foot steel pole, significantly higher than the tallest tree," says Key West resident Stephanie Lowerhaupt, who lives across the street from the proposed site.
Residents argue that the tower's presence not only will be dramatically out of character with the neighborhood, it will depress property values, affect the environment, and could lead to health problems.
"Myself and other neighbors submitted appraisals of our two adjacent properties from a licensed appraiser with a conclusion of a 10 percent reduction in real estate value due to cell tower construction," says Key West resident John Clem. "The county did not accept the appraisal saying there were no comparable properties in the appraisal, but there are no comparable situations to this for comparison."
In addition, the area where the tower is to be built is along a “critical slope” with more than 25-percent degree grade drop, making this a vulnerable environmental area that requires a zoning waiver.
"Already there is evidence in the place near the proposed platform of strong water runoff that has taken away ground soil," says Toplin, "taking it down over a cliff-like topography and dropping it down towards the Rivanna River."
Toplin also cites growing scientific evidence that RF (radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation) emitted from these towers may cause health problems, even cancer.
According to Toplin, new evidence suggests that chronic exposure to RF— not just driving by a tower or working next to one, but living in close proximately for a long time— has the potential to cause health problems over time.
"This site has steep slopes and runoff challenges," says Supervisor Ann Mallek, "and I need to hear how the applicant would address those issues, as well as the aesthetics of a cell tower in a neighborhood. Other issues are not allowed to be considered by the FCC."
Indeed, the 1996 Telecommunications Act prohibits communities from denying the placement of these towers based on health concerns. However, case law has shown that the impact on the neighborhood and the environment, and the concern of the neighborhoods, has been a factor in denying such tower placements.
Finally, Toplin and company hope they get a fair shake at the September 11 meeting, where AT&T's representatives will be out in full force.
While Toplin says that county supervisors have "been wonderful" about listening to residents' concerns and giving their time to an investigation of the tower issue, he hopes they'll get equal time at the actual meeting.
"Key West citizens should not be marginalized by being told that they can only speak at the opening section of the meeting when there are “public comments,” says Toplin. "Isn’t it inappropriate to allow AT&T to control the floor in that main section of the meeting while Key West citizens have to remain silent? There are two voices that need to be heard here."