A proposal to erect a telecommunications monopole at Wolf Trap Fire Station appears to have a long way to go before gaining neighbors’ support.
The vast majority of residents who expressed their views at a March 15 online meeting hosted by the Great Falls Citizens Association said the proposed monopole would be an eyesore, offer still-inadequate coverage and potentially harm neighbors’ home values and health.
‘How would you like to have this 300 feet from your back yard, when there are alternatives?” asked John Callanan, who lives in the nearby A Country Place neighborhood. “How can this not impact and crush property values in our small community?”
Milestone Communications is asking Fairfax County for a special exception to place the unmanned monopole and a 50-by-50-foot equipment area on the southeast corner of fire station’s parking lot at 1315 Beulah Road. The facility would be accessible by a 10-foot-wide gravel road and generate only one or two vehicle trips per month for maintenance.
The monopole would accommodate equipment from Verizon, which requested the tower, and possibly some from AT&T, T-Mobile and DISH Network, said Chris Harold, a vice president at Milestone Communications.
The pole would be 114 feet tall using a plain design, but one disguised as a tree would need to be 8 feet taller to avoid a “toilet-brush-style” look, he said. Harold showed photos from a variety of angles that indicated how those two options would appear.
Milestone has put up more than 130 wireless towers, including more than 30 at Fairfax County Public Schools sites, Harold said. Installing the equipment at the fire station will improve capacity and coverage in the vicinity, he said.
More than 54 percent of U.S. households in 2018 had only wireless telecommunications service and about 77 percent of 911 calls made in Virginia are done on wireless devices, Harold said.
In addition to bolstering public safety, the new equipment would support local residents who during the pandemic have become more accustomed to teleworking, distance learning and using telemedicine, he said.
Verizon is trying to provide better coverage along that section of Route 7 and its surrounding neighborhoods, having received multiple service complaints stemming from the hilly terrain and dense trees, said Naod Desta, a design engineer with the company.
A key part of the discussion, which drew about 60 people, was whether a collection of “small-cell” equipment could provide equal coverage without the visual impact of a monopole, or “macro-cell” tower.
Macro towers typically broadcast signals in a 1-to-2-mile radius and typically are augmented with small-cell equipment, which have an effective radius of 300 to 500 feet, Harold said.
“For this type of environment, small cells are not the best type of solution to be unrolled initially,” he said.
Several other residents disagreed, saying they preferred a network of small-cell gear instead of the tall tower. Milestone and Verizon have vested interests in erecting a monopole instead, the former because that is the kind of work the company does and the latter because multiple small-cell installations would cost more, Callanan said.
Some opponents, such as Sanjay Vani, said a similar tower had been rejected at nearby Andrew Chapel United Methodist Church.
Local resident Katherine Chalmers complained of “garbage” cell-phone coverage for the last 20 years and said Verizon is “basically giving a ‘forget you’ to our neighborhood.”
Chalmers and others at the meeting doubted whether the tower would be able to support the latest 5G wireless technology. Harold assured them it would.
Telecommunications representatives assured residents that multiple studies had failed to detect health problems associated with cell towers, but some of the critics were not mollified.
The monopole would be located about 375 feet from the nearest residential property line on the 11.5-acre site, which the Board of Supervisors owns, Harold said. The equipment compound would be surrounded by a chain-link fence outfitted with privacy slats, he said.
Milestone would remove five trees to install the equipment, but plant 15 to 20 new ones, Harold said.
Nearby resident Lonn Waters said his neighbors support the monopole because they want to be able to use cellphones at their houses.
The McLean Citizens Association (MCA) on Feb. 3 unanimously approved a resolution favoring the monopole’s installation. The project would feature a small bioretention area that would catch water runoff and reduce pollutants leaving the site, the resolution read.
MCA first vice president Glenn Harris, who lives close by, favored the tower. “I do think we need to allow technological progress to occur,” he said.
Harris said a tree-shaped monopole substantially would mitigate visual impacts at the site, but added he also would support small-cell units if they provided equivalent coverage. Most of Great Falls now is served by a small-cell network, said GFCA president Bill Canis.
Desta countered that Verizon could accomplish equivalent coverage around the fire station with a collection of 60 to 80 small cells, but that this would be more costly and end up disturbing more land.
The current timetable calls for a Fairfax County Planning Commission public hearing on the matter May 12 and a Board of Supervisors hearing June 8.