Commission torn on sign regs for fire and rescue

Unedited video of the Rappahannock County Planning Commission's 7:00 p.m. public meeting Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, at the county courthouse.

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission held public hearings earlier this week on two controversial subjects consuming Rappahannock citizens’ attention in recent weeks: an application to place a cell tower on Eldon Farms and a proposed zoning ordinance amendment exempting fire and rescue services from complying with signage requirements.

The planners ultimately voted not to recommend approval of both initiatives by the Board of Supervisors, which will hear the proposals at its January meeting (at that meeting, two new supervisors will be seated to replace the outgoing Chair Roger Welch from Wakefield district and Hampton’s John Lesinski, who is running for the U.S. Congress).

The planners’ four-to-one vote recommending denial of the cell tower application affirmed Piedmont planner Mary Katherine Ishee’s motion to deny because “the location, height, and design [of the tower] doesn’t meet the requirements of our comprehensive plan and minimizes our ability to protect the view shed… [The tower as currently envisioned] will create an adverse effect on tourism and property values.”  

In July, Community Wireless Structures (CWS) applied for construction of two 199-foot towers along Route 522 south of Sperryville — one in Scrabble and the other on Eldon Farms. Later, CWS amended its application to lower the height of the proposed Eldon Farms tower to 139 feet.

According to the CWS applications, the two towers — if and when communications providers have mounted transmitters — would fill in connectivity along the highway between two existing towers in Sperryville and Boston. 

CSW Vice President Hope McCreary has appeared in several county meetings to make the case for the added cell service, internet connectivity, and public safety communications the towers would provide.

However, detractors consistently cited the potential effects of the towers to the county’s view shed and nearby residents’ physical health and complained that added connectivity would mainly benefit drivers on 522 and the few residents who live around both proposed locations.

Fire and rescue personnel have argued that service from the towers would extend and expand the reach of public safety agencies to respond to emergencies.

At its Oct. 7 meeting, the Board of Supervisors accepted an offer by CWS to extend the deadline for consideration of the towers from Dec. 28 to Feb. 28, 2020 to allow the newly elected BOS time to act.

It’s not about the sign

The planners voted three-to two against recommending an amendment to the county’s sign ordinance that would exempt fire and rescue companies from the signage requirements. In 2017, the Fire and Rescue Association requested to the Board of Supervisors a text amendment to exempt volunteer fire and rescue companies from the provisions of the ordinance. In early 2018, the Planning Commission reviewed the amendment but never held a public hearing.

The issue was brought to a head this November after Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue went ahead and replaced its old fluorescent lit sign with a bright LED sign. The AVFR erected the sign without seeking or obtaining the permit required under the county’s zoning ordinance.

In a Nov. 1 letter to the BOS, County Administrator Garrey Curry wrote: “Much to our surprise, a new electronic sign was recently installed at the AVFR station without a single permit. No SUP, no zoning permit, no building permit (for electrical).” 

Curry pointed out that this action came despite several communications from the county’s zoning administrator to AVFR that a permit was required.

At the planners’ Dec. 18 public hearing to get input on a proposed text amendment, several members of the county’s fire and rescue community spoke in favor of exempting the fire and rescue companies from the sign ordinance, seeming to argue that the right to put up the sign without a permit affected the companies’ ability to deliver service to the community.

Art Candenquist, vice president of the fire company, stated: “Everyone in this room, we are protecting your life and property… We feel a personal responsibility to respond to your emergency. There’s nothing anyone can do if we fail to respond to a particular address... We are asking for the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors to give us a little support.”

The planners in their remarks unanimously praised the county’s fire and rescue companies and expressed gratitude for all they do for the community. But they were visibly torn on whether to recommend the ordinance amendment granting exemptions.

Chair Gary Light tried repeatedly to steer the planners away from the current issue of the new AVFR sign and concentrate on the amendment proposal.

“What is before us tonight,” Light said, “would only exempt [fire and rescue companies] from the permit process not the sign requirements. So strictly speaking, acting on this tonight does nothing to address the compliance issues.”

Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith, the BOS representative  on the commission, moved to recommend approval of the amendment. She and Chris Bird, the Board of Zoning Appeals rep on the Planning Commission, voted in favor, while Ishee, Light, and Jackson planner Rick Kohler voted against it.

Before the vote Ishee said, “I don’t see the basis for exempting fire and rescue, for all the good they do, and not exempt other people.”

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