Consumer demand for cellular phones, paging devices, and other wireless telecommunication services has increased sharply in recent years. The fast-paced wireless communications industry has presented local governments with the challenge of guiding the industry’s antennas and support structures to appropriate locations.
Support structures are typically needed for the placement of an industry’s antennas to deliver wireless communications. Antennas must be at specific heights (typically between 150’ and 200’) to transmit and receive radio frequencies adequately. Existing support structures – such as buildings, utility poles, pylons, church steeples, water towers, highway signs, lighting poles, and existing towers – can help accommodate the industry’s antennas when they are located in or near a provider’s service area. Basically, any structure that meets the height requirements needed by the service provider can be adapted to accommodate an antenna. The industry often uses existing support structures when available, but when they are not available the communications provider must construct a support structure – usually a communications pole or tower – capable of supporting its antenna.
Through its development ordinances and Special Use Permit requirements for towers, York County works to ensure that support structures are properly sited. Each potential tower site is different, but there are certain general policies set forth in the Comprehensive Plan that govern where such facilities can be located. Towers should not be located in or near historic areas or along tourist corridors or greenbelt roads and ideally should be located in industrial and commercial areas rather than in residential neighborhoods. In accordance with the County’s policy that it is preferable to have fewer towers, even if that means they have to be taller than they would otherwise be, wireless providers should be required to share towers (i.e., co-locate) whenever possible and existing structures should be used when available. When no other feasible option exists, communication towers will be allowed to encroach on these areas if facilities are designed appropriately and are compatible with the character of the protected areas. In such cases, antenna support structures should be designed to blend into the environment whenever possible.
Zoning for telecommunications towers
Cell towers fall under Category 17, No. 7 (Radio Television, Microwave Facilities) in the Zoning Ordinance Table of Land Uses (Section 24.1-306). Towers up to 100 feet in height are permitted as a matter of right in the IL (Limited Industrial) and IG (General Industrial) zoning districts; taller towers in these zoning districts require approval of a height exemption by the Board of Supervisors.
Towers are also permitted in the RC (Resource Conservation), RR (Rural Residential), GB (General Business), EO (Economic Opportunity), and WCI (Water-oriented Commercial/Industrial) districts, but only upon the approval of a Special Use Permit by the Board of Supervisors, with public hearings and Planning Commission review.
Special Use Permit application requirements for towers
In addition to plans, a completed application form and the application fee, the following materials should be submitted as part of any Special Use Permit request for a telecommunications tower:
Project narrative explaining why the tower is needed, areas to be served, etc. The narrative must include detailed documentation demonstrating that the tower is truly needed and that no other options – such as co-location on an existing tower(s), extension of an existing tower, utilizing an existing tall structure, etc. – are feasible.
Clear and legible propagation maps showing coverage with and without the proposed tower
Photo simulations of the proposed tower
Special Use Permit conditions for towers
Every tower site is different and involves different issues. However, there are certain issues and requirements that are common to every tower proposal. Listed below are standard use permit conditions that are typically applied by the Board of Supervisors to approved towers. Additional conditions may be imposed by the Board, depending on the location and other circumstances.
A site plan prepared in accordance with the provisions of Article V of the York County Zoning Ordinance shall be submitted to and approved by the County prior to commencement of land clearing or any construction activity on the subject property. Said plan shall be substantially in conformance with the sketch plan submitted by the applicant. As part of the site plan submittal, the applicant shall prepare a frequency intermodulation study to determine the impact on current communication transmissions for the York County Departments of Fire and Life Safety and General Services, Sheriff’s Office, School Division, and the Intrac Sewer Telemetry System. Should any equipment associated with the facility at any time during the operation of the tower be found by the County to cause interference with County communications, the applicant shall be responsible for the elimination of said interference within 24 hours of receipt of notice from the County.
Construction and operation of the tower shall be in conformance with the performance standards set forth in Sections 24.1-493 and 24.1-494 of the Zoning Ordinance.
The applicant shall submit to the County a statement from a registered engineer certifying that NIER (nonionizing electromagnetic radiation) emitted from the tower does not result in a ground level exposure at any point outside such facility that exceeds the maximum applicable exposure standards established by any regulatory agency of the U.S. government or the American National Standards Institute.
A report from a registered structural or civil engineer shall be submitted indicating tower height and design, structure installation, and total anticipated capacity of the structure (including number and types of users that the structure can accommodate). These data shall satisfactorily demonstrate that the proposed tower conforms to all structural requirements of the Uniform Statewide Building Code and shall set out whether the tower will meet the structural requirement of EIA-222E, "Structural Standards for Steel Antenna Towers and Antenna Supporting Structures.”
Advertising and signage on the tower shall be expressly prohibited, except for warning signs associated with the operation of the tower or its equipment.
Prior to site plan approval, the applicant shall submit written statements from the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission, and any other review authority with jurisdiction over the tower, stating that the proposed tower complies with regulations administered by that agency or that the tower is exempt from those regulations.
If at any time use of the communications tower ceases, the owner of the subject property on which the tower is located shall dismantle and remove it within 6 months after ceasing to use it, unless:
A binding lease agreement or letter of intent with another wireless communications provider has been executed in which case an additional six (6) months shall be granted. If a letter of intent is provided, the execution date for a binding lease agreement shall not extend more than 12 months beyond the time the use of the tower ceases, or
The County requests, in writing, that the tower be reserved for County use.
Accessory facilities shall not include offices, vehicle storage, or outdoor storage unless permitted by the district regulations.
Evidence shall be provided prior to receipt of a building permit that the Virginia State Corporation Commission has been notified that a communication facility is to be constructed.
The tower shall be gray in color. Should FAA requirements dictate special markings, tower lighting shall be used in lieu of multi-color painting. If painting is required, a tower maintenance plan shall be submitted to and approved by the County.
No microwave dishes, conical shaped antennae, or other dish shall be permitted on the tower.
The communications tower shall be structurally designed to accommodate no fewer than 3 wireless users capable of supporting either PCS or cellular antenna arrays. If space is available, the County shall have the right of first refusal for leasing a space on the tower to place an antenna in support of operations consistent with the County’s Department of Fire and Life Safety.
In accordance with Section 24.1-115(b)(7) of the York County Zoning Ordinance, a certified copy of the resolution authorizing the Special Use Permit shall be recorded at the expense of the applicant in the name of the property owner as grantor in the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court prior to application for site plan approval.
Policies for towers located in power pylons
Several towers have been built within existing Dominion Virginia Power pylons in the County. The advantage of this approach is that the visual obtrusiveness of the tower is reduced by utilizing an existing structure that is already fairly conspicuous. These so-called “power towers” do not require approval by the Board of Supervisors if the antennas are less than 5% higher than the pylon; such towers can be approved administratively. If the tower is more than 5% but less than 25% above the existing pylon, Board of Supervisors approval is required but without a public hearing or review by the Planning Commission. A height increase greater than 25% must go through the full Special Use Permit process, including Planning Commission review and advertised public hearings.