Around 15 residents and representatives from Milestone Communications met Wednesday evening at Kings Park Library to discuss the proposed monopole AT&T plans to build at Lake Braddock Secondary School.
AT&T has filed an application with Fairfax County for a new cell phone tower in order to address a gap in wireless coverage in that area of Burke, according to Cristian Hernandez, project manager with Milestone Communications, who lead the presentation.
The gap, Hernandez said, is caused by the inability of current coverage to keep up with area residents' extensive use of devices such as Kindles, iPads and smart phones. The existing poles were built to handle voice coverage, but these days, Hernandez said, the issue is more about data and capacity.
“There are more wireless devices in use now than there are people in the homes,” said Hernandez.
The galvanized steel monopole will be 130 feet tall and be located near the baseball field at Lake Braddock. Although it’s intended to blend in among existing athletic light poles, the monopole will stand 45 feet taller than the light poles, according to Hernandez.
Residents: Angry at Prospect of Monopole
Some of the residents at the meeting raised concerns about the tower’s proximity to the school and its students and the effect the tower could have on their home property values.
“When you start coming into our neighborhoods that we are sacrificing for, we’re working two jobs to pay the freaking taxes that keep rising, we can’t get the grass cut and now you’re putting up a tower. It’s just one more little thing we have to deal with. I’m not impressed,” said one woman.
The monopole would not be a "monopine" or have any other camouflage in order for it to blend in with the environment of the light poles. One resident who lives behind the athletic field said the athletic lights don’t bother him, but he believes the monopole will be more visible and a nuisance to him and his neighbors.
“The point is, we don’t care what AT&T wants and AT&T obviously doesn’t care about us,” said one resident. “They’re not taking into account our property values or the aesthetic value of this.”
Hernandez said several studies have proven that cell towers don’t affect the property values of homes, but residents questioned the validity of such studies and disagreed with Milestone representatives about the impact the pole would have on home values.
Hernandez said the pole would not interfere with school property or the students, but some residents also objected to the location of the pole, arguing that the equipment and its placement on school grounds posed a safety risk to students.
Residents Worried About Student Safety
One resident expressed concern about the pole potentially attracking a lightning strike that could injure students.
“I’m shocked you’re considering putting this near students. I can’t believe that [the possibility of lightning] issue is not being addressed,” said the resident.
“These [monopoles] are lightning rods. Let’s call it like it is,” said Len Forkas, founder of Milestone Communications, in response to the resident’s comment. “But we have licensed engineers that design lightning protection systems, including grounding rings, copper spikes that go deep in the ground and a copper line that runs through the tower. Every piece of equipment is fenced in and tied into the system. It’s all grounded.”
The equipment for the pole would cover about 2,403 square feet and be housed at the base of the pole and fenced in. Students would not be able to access or tamper with the equipment, according to Forkas.
“We have to care and ensure that our equipment is safe. We care about the safety of the tower and the students, and we care about the safety of our workers,” said Forkas.
The closest home to the pole is estimated to be 719 feet away, but some residents still said they thought the pole was too visible from their homes.
The presentation included photo simulations, which were created following an initial "balloon fly" by AT&T, to show what the pole would look like from various streets.
Residents Seek Alternative Locations
Unsatisfied with the answers and the presentation, residents at the meeting expressed frustration for the monopole plan. One resident suggested the pole be placed in the Kings Park Shopping Center, 8970 Burke Lake Road, rather than the school, and questioned whether AT&T had evaluated other locations before deciding on Lake Braddock as the best choice.
According to Hernandez, AT&T staff (in consultation with Fairfax County Public Schools facilities managers and Lake Braddock Secondary School staff), identified the school as the best and “most appropriate” location for the monopole. Forkas said AT&T considered churches and other facilities for the monopole, but he did not specify which facilities. The presentation also did not include a list of the alternative locations AT&T considered.
When asked for clarification of the process regarding location, Doug Hansen, a reviewer with the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, explained that cell towers tend to be placed on public lands.
“We try to steer away from allowing the poles to be placed in residential subdivisions,” said Hansen, who added that Lake Braddock falls under "government institutional use," as a county public school and is considered a public facility.
When asked whether the county benefits financially from the addition of the pole and if financial gain is considered when making a decision to allow schools as a location, Forkas said Lake Braddock would receive a one-time fee of $20,000 when the monopole goes up. The school also receives $5,000 for every carrier.
Forkas said it amounts to approximately $12,000 per year per carrier in revenue for Fairfax County Public Schools. As an example, Forkas said Thoreau Middle School in Vienna has a monopole that generates about $40,000 a year in recurring revenue for FCPS. Thoreau receives about 15 percent of that amount per year, he noted.
"I hope that Milestone, ATT, and the Braddock District Land Use Committee will listen closely to community feedback on the proposed monopole. This is only the beginning of a long process and it won't be until October before the Planning Commission votes - plenty of time for all voices to be heard," Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, who briefly attended Wednesday's meeting, told Patch.
A "Community Balloon Fly" has been scheduled for June 1 from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. at Lake Braddock Secondary School. The rain date for the balloon fly is June 8.
The tentative public hearing date before the Planning Commission is currently scheduled for Oct. 24.
For more information about the pole and to follow meeting updates, visit www.lakebraddockwirelesspole.com/.