In January, the Loudoun County Department of Planning advised citizens impatient for details on AT&T’s continuing activities on Short Hill Mountain that key aspects of the work – including the amount of power, and the number of new utility lines, generators, and more that might eventually be required – would remain under Freedom of Information Act blackout, not available to the public.
Said Deputy Zoning Administrator Michelle Lohr, in an email to Sam Kroiz of the Short Hill Rescue citizen’s group: “The County is advised that the telecommunications facility that is the subject of [citizen inquiries] is deemed to constitute ‘critical infrastructure’ as defined in the Homeland Security Act, and, as such, information that reveals any details of the facility … is protected from disclosure in accordance with the ‘Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002’.”
While under intense public scrutiny since AT&T abruptly withdrew a permit application related to a “continuing use” last year, the bind that Short Hill’s immediate neighbors are in is just now coming into view. The permitting process for upgrades to an existing use first flew off the rails when citizens turned out in record numbers for a series of public meetings. Things quieted down when AT&T withdrew the permit, but, heated up again as intense construction, night lights, and earth-moving activities continued. Spokespeople for the County and AT&T have routinely directed citizen questions to SPAM 2016-0067, a permit for “grading and electrical work.”
The company has denied reports that Short Hill is being prepared as the site for a full-blown data center. And, concerned neighbors fear that many of the things the public has both the right to know – and the right to influence through the planning process – will be set in place before the public has the opportunity to mount a challenge. Since AT&T is operating legally under SPAM 2016-0067, none of the activities currently underway is subject to Board of Supervisors review or public scrutiny.
According to the Short Hill Rescue group, with the FOIA blackout in place, the potential for a use as intensive as a data center – with no further public input – is staring rural western Loudoun right in the face.
In Related News … Wireless Companies Seek Relaxed Approvals
A proposal now before the Virginia legislature – House Bill 2196 – would strictly limit Loudoun County’s zoning oversight with respect to the installation of “small cell” wireless facilities.
The bill, introduced by Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R) (House District 1) provides for “a uniform procedure for the way in which wireless communications infrastructure is approved by localities and installed in public rights-of-way.”
Originating from the telecommunications giant SPRINT, HB 2196 would make the siting of wireless infrastructure much easier for all companies – limiting both the information given to a locality and that locality’s power to require facilities to get approval for special exceptions, special use permits, or other zoning safeguards.
The bill is opposed by local preservation and conservation groups, including the Piedmont Environmental Council. And, these groups have another influential ally in the fight, the Virginia Municipal League. According to VML, the bill has “significant ramifications for local government including the use of public property without proper remuneration, loss of local land use control and blind permit approvals … “
Speaking to the larger issue of community input with respect to how and where telecommunications service infrastructure is located, Michelle Gowdy, General Counsel for the League said: “While localities are working to bury public utilities to enhance the beauty of their communities, wireless providers want to inundate rights-of-way and public property with towers and unsightly structures … These small cells may be placed on towers up to 120 feet tall and will have bulky cabinets along with antennae attached … The wireless carriers say that these aren’t cell towers, but to an ordinary eye, they sure look like them.”