By Debbie Adams
The Roanoke County Planning Commission met on November 2 for a public hearing on approving the rezoning of 9.55 acres at Stonebridge Park and issuing a Special Use Permit to allow Milestone Tower Limited Partnership IV to erect a broadcasting tower (cell tower) within the park.
The park is located at 420 Swan Drive in the Vinton Magisterial District adjacent to Wolf Creek and the Wolf Creek Greenway, near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The proposed tower would occupy approximately 2,000 square feet of the 9.55 acres.
The parcel is now zoned R-1, Low Density Residential District, which does not allow for broadcasting towers; however, towers are allowed in AR, Agricultural/Residential Districts with a Special Use Permit.
The proposed monopole tower would be approximately 137 feet in height with a lightning rod. The plan is to demolish the existing (but currently unused) restrooms at Stonebridge Park and place the cell tower there.
According to Milestone, there is a need for wireless service in the area as there is a coverage gap. The tower would improve capacity and coverage to the neighborhoods nearby.
Shentel would be the wireless service provider at the top of the pole. Three more co-locators could use the monopole as well.
Many in the community have expressed concern about the effects of the project on Stonebridge Park which contains a popular playground, along with a much-used picnic shelter and tennis courts.
According to the submitted request, the tower would be located 410 feet from the closest property line and 430 feet from the closest residence. There would be little ground disturbance; the existing access road would be used; maintenance would be minimal. The fenced compound surrounding the base of the cell tower would measure approximately 45 feet by 43 feet.
After presentations by Roanoke County Planner Cecile Newcomb and Milestone attorney Lori Schweller, emotional pleas from neighbors of the park in person, by phone, and through emails, and a lengthy discussion among Planning Commission members, the Planning Commission approved advancing the issue to the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors (on a four-to -one vote) for a public hearing on November 17 at 7 p.m.
County staff suggested four conditions for the Special Use Permit:
- The site shall be developed in substantial conformance with the conceptual site plan dated September 8, 2020, subject to any changes required during the site plan review process.
- Only one broadcast tower shall be constructed on site. The maximum height of the broadcasting tower shall not exceed 137 feet. The broadcast tower shall be galvanized or gray in color.
- A row of large evergreen tress shall be planted along the outside of the fenced compound to screen it from public view. If any trees are cut down or removed during construction of the broadcast tower the applicant shall replant the same number of trees in the park at locations approved by county staff and warrantied for 12 months.
- The broadcast tower shall not impact nor create any barriers to recreational amenities (trails, parking, playgrounds, athletic fields, etc.). Construction of the broadcast tower shall not alter the flow of stormwater in the park to impede any recreational amenity.
During COVID-19, citizens are urged to view the Planning Commission meetings remotely; however, three citizens attended the Planning Commission meeting – Roy Lee, Virginia Clark, and Gretchen Stinnett, who all live in the Stonebridge neighborhood.
Lee presented a petition of 500 signatures from citizens opposed to the project. Over 100 of those live in the Stonebridge subdivision, with many more from the surrounding Lindenwood, Spring Grove, and Chestnut Mountain neighborhoods.
He moved to Stonebridge “for the park, the greenway, and the view of the mountain, not to view a cell tower. I don’t understand why Stonebridge Park has to be picked for the tower when there are so many other places.”
Lee also said he feared the value of his property would decrease if the cell tower is built.
Virginia Clark, who lives on Swan Drive, presented a petition of 200 names of those opposing the broadcast tower. She came to represent “the voice of the neighborhood,” and “lots of moms who love the park.” She commented that people come from across the valley to visit the park.
“The park is loved and well-used, especially in 2020,” said Clark, whose daughters visit the park two or three times a day. She noted that her family has strong cell and Internet service – her husband is working from home on a college degree; her children do their schoolwork from home; she works from home.
Clark told the commission that six subdivisions in the immediate area have direct line of sight of the proposed tower.
She fears it is a slippery slope the county would be starting down in allowing the cell tower.
Gretchen Stinnett, who has lived in Stonebridge for 24 years, said it “breaks my heart” that the park where her “kids, grandkids, and great grandkids have played” is going to be disfigured by a cell tower in such close proximity to the playground, picnic shelter, baseball field, tennis courts, and greenway.
Citizens watching the Planning Commission meeting remotely were able to call in or email their comments. Just one supported the cell tower, citing the need for more service in the area. Others were concerned about the aesthetic insult to the community where they moved for the mountain views and the potential decline in property values from the “eyesore.”
Other comments included concerns over degradation of the neighborhood, physical and environmental impact on the park and Wolf Creek Greenway, health risks, whether a different design of cell tower which is less intrusive could be used, what the financial benefit is to the county, why the Roanoke County School Board turned down the cell towers originally proposed for William Byrd High School and Middle School, selection of alternative sites, and tower frequencies.
Milestone says the proposed monopole will not have an adverse impact on the community and will, in fact, serve to enhance community services.
Attorney Schweller responded that building the cell tower “is not a slippery slope” leading to destruction of the park. Rezoning is simply required to obtain the Special Use Permit. “The park is not going anywhere. There will be no tower farm.” She indicated that eventually the cell tower will just become part of the landscape, as are athletic field lights of similar height. The community will “get used to it.”
“It is an essential utility, and it is worth it,” Schweller said. “Rather than lowering property values, cell towers demonstrate a strong wireless service – more valuable to residents than anything but hospitals.”
Milestone representative Paul Dugan addressed perceived health risks from transmission lines, saying the risk has been determined to be low, and below federal safety guidelines. Roanoke County attorney Rachel Lower explained that denial of the cell tower project, according to law, cannot be based on health concerns – as long as it is in compliance with FCC regulations.
Questioned as to why another site within the 9.55-acre park could not be selected, away from the picnic shelter, playground, and tennis courts, the commission was told that there is “lots of low ground in the parcel” which would not be suitable and might require that the tower be placed on stilts to transmit properly.
During the discussion that followed, Chairman Rick James stated that he lives in the coverage gap area himself. “It is real.” He expressed his sympathy as to the viewshed but recommended approving the request from Milestone and sending it on to the Board of Supervisors for a public hearing.
He reminded citizens that the cell tower compound is the size of a house. He believes that rezoning will help preserve the park rather than leading to its closure and emphasized that the land is being leased to Milestone, not sold. He affirmed that the issue being wrestled with was “whether this is an appropriate use of the property.”
At the end of the meeting, James suggested that instead of a chain link fence surrounding the compound, a wooden barricade might be more aesthetically pleasing.
Details of the Milestone request may be found at https://www.roanokecountyva.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1061/Agenda-with-Reports?bidId=.