New details emerged on Friday about a convoluted easement deal that is keeping construction of a proposed Verizon cellular antenna tower on-hold, at least for the near future. Although representatives from Verizon, Mount Carmel United Methodist Church and Mountain Lake Campground were in attendance to discuss the issues at Friday’s Clarke County Planning Commission meeting, the owner of the tower site and key player in the easement puzzle, Phillip Thomas of Middleburg, was absent.
“There are still difficulties in our negotiations with the church,” Verizon representative Dave Lasso told the Planning Commissioners.
Verizon is seeking to relocate an existing cellular antenna located on property owned by Mountain Lake Campground on Mount Carmel Church Road just north of Route 50 to a higher location nearby on land owned by Thomas but accessible only through Mount Carmel United Methodist Church’s parking lot.
County land records show that although the Mount Carmel Church congregation has been holding services every Sunday in the picturesque wooden church on the Blue Ridge for nearly 250 years, the property, which was deeded to the Church by Lord Fairfax, is now actually landlocked. In order to gain entry into the church parking lot parishioners must cross a narrow strip of land owned by Phillip Thomas.
In previous Planning Commission meetings Verizon presented what at first glance appeared to be a fairly straightforward easement proposal that would have allowed Verizon personnel to occasionally gain access to the tower location through Mount Carmel’s parking lot. In exchange for the access, Verizon said that it was willing to pay the Church’s legal fees associated with recording an easement extension from Thomas that would have provided the Church with by-right access from Mount Carmel Road to Church property.
But on Friday new details surfaced indicating that what had previously been discussed as an easement deal between Verizon and Mount Carmel Church was actually a deal between Verizon, Mount Carmel Church and Thomas.
According to Clarke County Zoning Administrator Jesse Russell, under the proposed plan now being floated by Verizon and Thomas, easement to an old logging road accessible through the Church’s parking lot would be transferred to Thomas in exchange for Thomas granting the Church clear easement to Mount Carmel Road. Thomas would then grant Verizon easement access to the logging road so that the new antenna site could be built on Thomas’s property.
“The easement was going to be given to Mr. Thomas,” Russell explained. “Once Mr. Thomas has easement access he then would be allowed to use the easement for other activities besides Verizon.”
But Mount Carmel pastor Karen Adams, who spoke at the meeting, said that while the deal was good for Verizon and Thomas, she did not believe that it was in the best interest of the Church.
“The easement is a ‘win’ situation for Mr. Thomas and Verizon but not for Mount Carmel Church,” Adams told the Commissioners. “Our lawyer told us that it is not in our best interest to agree to an open-ended easement.”
“For example, if Mr. Thomas decided to log the area behind the Church the easement would allow him to bring the logging trucks directly through the Church parking lot,” added Russell.
Adams also said that Mount Carmel’s congregation has learned that Thomas’s road access easement offer may have less value than originally believed. Adams said that the Church may have the option of pursuing a “prescriptive easement” to ensure her congregation’s access to the Church’s property from Mount Carmel Road.
Under a prescriptive easement, a party can acquire certain rights to a piece of land that has been occupied and used in an open manner for a certain specific period of time without the permission of the owner.
“Given that Verizon would like to have access to the monopole site, what scenario works best for you?” Planning Commissioner Jon Turkel (Millwood) asked Adams.
“If we had a prescriptive easement to our property we may be more inclined to cooperate with Verizon,” Adams replied.
Right-of-way access is among the most common causes of easement by prescription and Mount Carmel’s 250-year occupation of its church-site could make its prescriptive easement claim one of the oldest on record should the matter reach the courts.
After multiple public sessions with the Planning Commission and easement negotiations still seemingly no further along, Verizon offered another access option to the Commissioners on Monday; construction of a new access road from Mount Carmel Church Road that would connect with the logging road behind the Church. But while the new road may negate Verizon’s need for an easement through the Church parking lot, a large rock outcrop directly behind the Church could mean that Verizon’s proposed road will not meet Clarke County zoning requirements that call for a 25-foot vegetative buffer between a road and adjacent property owners.
“This is an issue that the Planning Commission will need to consider,” said Russell. “Do you waive the zoning buffer requirement near a 250-year-old church?”
Church members also say that Verizon has discussed the possibility of blasting to create the new roadbed. The specter of blast vibration damaging the Church’s 250-year-old foundation has raised concern within the Mount Carmel congregation.
The Commissioners agreed to continue the public hearing on the matter until its meeting on July 6th.