On Friday the Clarke County Planning Commission created a sub-committee to review four text amendment changes that would provide “by right” installation of telecommunication towers up to a maximum height of 75 feet in agricultural and forestall land use areas.
If adopted, the changes will enable local landowners to erect towers that are higher than Clarke County’s 60-foot average canopy height and improve access to wireless internet signals. The towers, also referred to as “monopoles”, could be used to support a small receiver high enough to capture radio signals from wireless internet service providers (WISP’s).
“This ordinance change is being presented as a way to make high speed internet more accessible throughout the county” said Clarke County zoning administrator Jesse Russell at the Planning Commission’s regular meeting on Friday. “Many areas of Clarke County, especially on the mountain and in agricultural districts, have a very difficult time getting high speed internet. You’d be amazed how many areas can get anything at all. This is an attempt to provide a way for those areas of the county to get high speed access without jumping through a special use permit hoop. This amendment gives a way to do it â€˜by right’”.
The zoning ordinance changes are significant because any current tower request exceeding 50 feet requires a special use permit (SUP) and review by the Clarke County Planning Commission. Special use permit applications also carry a $5000 county fee. Russell said that the change also brings Clarke County’s antenna ordinance in-line with Virginia code which Russell said is more lenient than Clarke County ordinance.
In current form, the four proposed zoning ordinance changes carry a set-back requirement from other property lines equal to the height of the tower. The proposal also allows vegetation removal within a six foot radius at the base of the tower but with no land disturbance.
“This will help anyone suffering from signal blockage from trees” said Planning Commissioner Richard Thuss (Buckmarsh). “But I suggest that we consider increasing the height limit to 100 feet to make sure that individuals can get above the trees. This amendment will allow a homeowner to put up a tower and then share the signal with neighbors who are in their line-of-sight.”
Wireless internet service operates on a radio frequency that only functions when the transmitting and receiving stations are in “line of sight” of each other. Trees, hills and other line of sight blockages can severely degrade or block wireless internet signals. Raising antenna height limitations will improve line of sight to WISP transmitters and once line of sight has been established between two antennae, the signal can then be shared locally with other users within line of sight of the receiving station.
Under a scenario envisioned by the proposed zoning amendment, an antenna could be erected by-right in an area with poor wireless internet signal reception. The improved signal from the antenna could then be distributed to multiple households in the area through a wireless access point after individual arrangement with the antenna’s owner.
Several planning commissioners said WISPs often will provide wireless service to an antenna owner at no charge provided that several other customers using the antenna agree to service contracts. Assuming a approximate fee of $1500 to erect an antenna tower and an average monthly service of $100, payback to the antenna owner for installation could be relatively quick.
During the discussion several Planning Commission members raised questions about specific aspects of what the proposed amendments could mean for county land use. The Planning Commission appointed a sub-committee, chaired by Richard Thuss, to review and finalize the amendments. Thuss will be assisted by Planning Commissioners Anne Caldwell (Millwood), Tom McFillen (Berryville) and Bev McKay (White Post).
The subcommittee will meet on July 7th at 8:00 am to review the amendments. A public hearing before the Clarke County Planning Commission on the changes will be held on September 2, 2011.