On Friday the Clarke County Planning Commission approved a special use permit request by Verizon Wireless to relocate a cellular antenna tower from its current location off Mount Carmel Road to a higher location near historic Mount Carmel United Methodist Church. The special use request now goes before the Clarke County Board of Supervisors where, if approved, the tower will mean better cellular service for Verizon customers. However, church representatives say that they have spent thousands of dollars in unnecessary lawyer fees and want Verizon to cover the bill.
“Jesus tells his disciples ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as a shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’,” Mount Carmel United Methodist Church pastor Karen Adams told the Clarke County Planning Commission prior to the Commission’s vote to approve the special use permit on Friday. “Mount Carmel sets on .623 acres, a very small plot of ground, and we do try keep our grounds as clean and neat as possible. Ministry takes place both inside the building and outside on the grounds as we fellowship during fundraisers. Mount Carmel operates on a very small budget, most of the time it is from month to month, which is why we do so many fund raisers.”
Adams said that the uninvited arrival of many different cellular tower relocation proposals over the last year, all targeted on using the church’s small amount of acreage, have kept the small community of Mount Carmel anxious and confused.
“Mount Carmel has had to hire a lawyer to protect our interests,” Adams said. “We have had deeds researched, papers pulled, and more meetings than we care to think about. In short we have been mislead repeatedly, spent money we really don’t have, plus all the tension and anxiety the congregation has felt.”
“This project was promised as a ‘win-win’ situation for all concerned but, the only win-win was for Verizon and Phil Thomas” Adams said.
Mr. Thomas currently owns the land surrounding the two-century-old Mount Carmel United Methodist Church property. Thomas, who owns Thomas and Talbot Real Estate in Middleburg, Virginia, will receive financial compensation from Verizon for the placement of the cellular tower on his property above the church, however, the financial terms of the agreement between Thomas and Verizon have not been disclosed.
On Friday, after months of discussion, the Planning Commissioners finally approved Verizon’s special use permit over the objections of the church. The approval includes the development of a new road on Mr. Thomas’s property to access the tower. Verizon representatives told the Planning Commissioners that the road will pass within three feet of the church’s property with no room to place a vegetative buffer between the church and the road.
However, Verizon did offer to place the vegetative buffer on church property if Mount Carmel United Methodist Church agreed.
Clarke County zoning requirements call for a minimum twenty five feet of clearance between a new road and any adjoining property. A mandatory vegetative buffer is also required. Approval of Verizon’s request for a variance to the buffer was based on the steep terrain and a large rock outcrop directly in the path of the proposed road.
“The lack of the buffer zone will impact us,” Adams told the Planning Commissioners. “If I were sitting where you are I would say ‘No’ to this proposal.”
In approving the special use permit the Planning Commissioners added requirements that Verizon work with the church to address the visual impact of the road from church property, address construction concerns raised by the County’s consulting engineer, Chester Engineering, and preclude any road construction work from taking place on Sunday.
After the meeting Adams said that she felt like the church had very little leverage to use in protecting its interested due to the powerful parties involved in pushing the tower relocation forward.
“Mount Carmel is the weak and poor fighting the wolves at our door; we have had to be shrewd and yet remain true to our faith statement ‘To be for ourselves and the world who Jesus called us to be’” Adams said. “We stand firm – no reciprocal agreement, a monetary sum to cover our expenses and peace to continue our ministry on the mountain.”
Planning Commissioner Jon Turkel (Millwood) voted against approval of the special use permit. Planning Commissioner Scott Kreider (Buckmarsh) was absent from Friday’s meeting.