Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rural Route 5 Threatened -Last Meeting Tonight- P-7-08 - will Henrico County care?

If you've ever driven the "scenic route" when traveling east through Varina, you know Route 5 provides a beautiful and bucolic drive. All of that may begin to change tonight, when Henrico Supervisors vote to support or deny a 130' cellular tower that would be visible from the historic Virginia Byway. Some of the shots in the HV banner above are seen from Route 5.
"Indeed, the nearly 3,000 miles of roads on the state-designated Virginia Byways program, designed to highlight areas of natural beauty and historic significance, are almost exclusively in rural areas," according to January 29th RT-D coverage of Richmond's
south of the James "Riverside Drive", the road that City Council will soon vote to protect through the program.

But 5 is already a Virginia Byway, a rating that was given to focus the rural setting and historic beginnings. Will that really help here? Residents watch each planned change for signs of the County promised "high quality" development standards.

Route 5 diverges from Old Osborne Turnpike just past the still quiet driveway to Tree Hill Farm, cutting inland from the James on its way towards Williamsburg.
Also known as "New Market Road" in part of Eastern Henrico, tourists driving, riding, and cycling through Richmond's historic sites follow the centuries old road past protected civil war battlefields, and farms still threatened by the lingering promise of sprawling development.

Chapter 7 of the Henrico's 2026 Comprehensive Plan draft describes the road like this:

"New Market Road Corridor"
"New Market Road (State Route 5) is the earliest roadway connecting the City of Richmond to Williamsburg. The corridor has generally maintained its rural character and contributes to the rural visual identity of the eastern portions of the County. The roadway itself is currently maintained by the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Since last May the cell-tower proposed right off of 5, (near Midview Road) has been deferred, and gone through public meetings, and deferred again. In December one public meeting experienced what a local called a "cute little wrinkle." The problem arose from the fact that only those in support of the tower's erection showed up at a scheduled County meeting about the tower. Those in opposition didn't get the notices in time.

Is this "a selective mailing tactic/strategy whereby attendance at "community" meetings is manufactured to favor one side of an argument?" as one native says they had to wonder. Or a normal bulk mailing problem with the postal service? This mishap reportedly left County representatives virtually scratching their heads... wondering how on earth this could have happened.

While looking for answers our crew was told to "read through enough Planning minutes and you'll notice that it's a recurring theme... Planning says they do more than they're required to by law". But similar lags and glitches happen with alarming frequency in the Planning notification process, not everyone has the internet and the postal service does their best.

The way we understand these cases are supposed to go down is that the cellular provider applying for the tower location is asked to provide alternate locations for the tower in question. But when we tried to find out what the alts for this case are,
we still don't know.

P-7-08, as the Route 5 case is called has been deferred at least 6 times if not 8. We lose track because there is sometimes a weeks long lag before information from some meetings is released. This should change sometime in February when Henrico Supervisory and Planning Commission meetings are scheduled to be available as live-streaming video up here on the world wide web.

Apparently the case report for P-7-08 originally asked that the County be notified of other sites the company has considered to place the tower. These were presumably offered up, but are (for some reason) not included in the report. This is the kind of detail that residents look for. Where else could this go? County staff is reported to have mentioned something to the effect that once that information had been given to the County, they were (automatically!?) satisfied. But there is no mention of alternative locations from the reports we found. After this long that should be known by all involved.

Somehow this doesn't sound very much like Open Government...

The cellular company representatives were reported to have been asked by opposing residents for a list of alternate sites at the various meetings. Eventually, during one of their presentations, they apparently put up a list of names of a few surrounding property owners in the vicinity they said they'd contacted, but that's it.
"And that's the extent to which anyone in the county verifies any of that?" a longtime resident asks, "Does this seem fair?"

More from the residential base: "The erratic thought process behind supporting the need for towers is and has been clear. Also the idea that splatter painting them will make it look like a cloud- like they'll become invisible... ridiculous."

The cellular tower issue will appear in many more backyards, in Varina and across the Henrico, soon (happening already, actually). But it was somehow absent from the minds of all those attending the Henrico Theater Comp. Plan meeting last September 15th in Varina.

The whole communications tower subject needs feedback at the upcoming Planning and Supervisory hearings on the 2026 Comprehensive Plan.

Back in the area surrounding the historic roadway we heard "We're all going to die unless this tower passes, since [they say] we need it for 911 calls...that's the recurrent theme now... No info, strangely, on actual numbers of dropped 911 calls in the neighborhood, or elsewhere..." one resident related.

Sarcasm is an obvious side effect of their dismay: "Plus, "it's invisible"" - "we won't know it's there", and
"the tower will blend (completely) into the landscape," some say they have been told again and again.

Maybe we should request some blimps? Or a water tower?
...the bottom line is, we think this is all wrong for 5.

People could talk about this for hours, it's all gone on so long now, but nobody wants to be named: "Do you really believe that reasoned arguments, supported with real data, work with anyone at the planning or supervisory level? Based on examination of archived minutes and personal experiences watching cellular cases, and sitting through a few meetings, I haven't found that they do."

Another Henrico cellular tower case called
P-16-08 ended oddly last Fall, after an unknown number of deferrals. The case was in the Chamberlayne Farms area of the Fairfield District.

An area resident asked if they could speak for a minute after the cellular representatives had made their final presentation. The wish was granted, which is pretty magical, because usually residents are told upfront that there is no "rebuttal" allowed. Henrico residents can tell you:

"Fighting for your neighborhood "rights" usually goes this way:
Opposing residents speak 1st- the applicants speak 2nd, the end."

(But how can they allow one requested rebuttal and not all?)

Following the company rep's final word the resident (rumored to be a member of the press- unless the name is a coincidence) is said to have asked Officials if cell towers were 'Utilities' (like the power company) or if they were service providers (like 'Pizza Place'). The resident learned the answer was "service provider". Next question for those in charge was if a cell tower was a "by rights development". We understand the answer was "no". Decision was deferred for the time being.

That tower was proposed to go into the vacant corner of a strip mall fronted by a large oddly shaped parking lot, in a residential area where houses faced the location from across a street in between.

At the next meeting when neighbors returned to hear the outcome, Supervisor
Thornton was given the floor, and after saying something about the area being a residential neighborhood, he went on to say something like: "inappropriate at this time". The case was P-16-08. The tower was denied.

While attempting to understand the logic behind that denial, we could never quite get to the bottom of it.
The reasoning of the BOS shoot-down of the Chamberlayne Farms case remains unclear, based on Mr. Thornton's vague response...but we ask

if it's "inappropriate at this time" to place a cellular tower
in a shopping center, in a well developed
Fairfield neighborhood,

then why is is any more appropriate to place a tower
in clear view of Route 5, which Henrico
recognizes as a "Scenic Corridor"?

In a desire for understanding of how this got this far, we put out the word, people dug for facts, and learned enough to share this information about the 'Midview' case with you.

A Henrico County staff report concerning the Route 5 case can be found here

It's pretty long, but it's listed to give disclosure to the best extent possible. We understand that while the Midview area tower near Route 5 was originally supposed to be disguised to look like a 130+ foot pine tree, P-7-08's proposal has now been changed to look like a 'stealth pole' (a giant pole painted to look like the sky around it.)

You can read the whole thing, but here are some of the facts printed in November:

This request is not consistent with a County preference for locating towers in areas not zoned, planned or utilized for residential purposes. In addition, the proposed location would have significant visual impacts on residential dwellings and the Route 5 corridor, which is designated as a Scenic Corridor in the 2010 Comprehensive Plan.

Based on the information provided by the applicant, the proposed 134' high communications tower would negatively impact adjacent residents as well as the scenic value of the Route 5 corridor. Staff recommends denial of this request.

While recognizing the need for wireless services in growing areas, the proposed height and close proximity to existing and planned residential development could impact surrounding uses.

The tower would also be visible along New Market Road (State Route 5). This road is noted as a Scenic Corridor in the 2010 Land Use Plan, and the tower would be located approximately 1,200 feet from the roadway. The County's Siting Policy for towers (Siting Policy "i") states that no tower shall be located within 1,400 feet of Route 5 unless an acceptable stealth tower design is utilized.

Siting Policy a: Towers in areas zoned or planned for residential uses are strongly discouraged.

Siting Policy i: No tower shall be located within 1,400 feet of Route 5 unless an acceptable stealth tower design is utilized.

Based on GIS, Waters of the U.S. and/or hydric soils are present (indicating possible wetlands) Corps of Engineers and DEQ permits may be required.

Topography and Land Characteristics Adaptability: Information submitted by the applicant indicates the presence of Resource Protection Area on the property, impacting the area available for the placement of the proposed tower.

* * * * * * * * *

If Comprehensive Planning suggests parts of our county are protected, but these suggestions aren't used, then what are the guidelines for?
Write in and tell us your thoughts.

And again people, this is not a newspaper. We don't sell ads,
we blog about things that concern us that might be of interest
to the people who follow this site.

"Public" information isn't always easy to find.
If you know something
we missed let us know.


Anonymous said...

Look out Route 5, P-7-08 passed last night due in part to a "passably acceptable" nod from the Varina Beautification Committee, Mr. Jernigan's partisan relationship with Anirav Swim Club (how does it look when the counsel for case is seen in a huddle before the meeting with Mr. J.)and the general apathetic attitude of Varina Residents. Oh, and forget about other members of the Planning Committee to raise a voice in opposition. It was a carefully rehearsed session of nods, planned questions and a unanimous vote.

4 voices of dissent were heard at the meeting last night, perhaps they are the lucky 4 who have been granted coverage in all of Varina. So what should they care if apparently all the pool members have been denied it for so long. They seem to be an all suffering lot and have endured terrible hardships due to the lack of cellular coverage.

Look for a tower coming to a neighborhood near you. As Gloria Freye, counsel for Diamond Communication, used other towers as the base for her argument in this case, she will certainly be using this tower to justify violating Rt 5. again and neighborhoods along it to the Charles City County line.

Anonymous said...

All of us at Historic Varina were sad to find that the 'Midview' cellular tower- P-7-08 was passed.

It is difficult to understand how a beautification group could give even a "passably acceptable" designation to this tower.

This project not only bodes poorly for (supposed) 'representative government', it also shows that the interests of business and gain-based ventures are of more importance to our local government officials than the environment, resident's investment in their communities, or sticking to the guidelines of our county's Comprehensive Plan.

You have our ear, and our sympathy, Midview. Sorry others would not listen.


Davis Gentry said...

Yeah - and how long has to author been in Varina? Personally, I wish they would make limit development and make it retroactive to the year I moved to Varina - 1979. It is amazing to me how many people have moved here in the last decade or so who want all development stopped so that Varina remains as it was when they got here. Selfish, self centered egotism.