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Park service concerned about cell tower plans

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Park service concerned about cell tower plans


MILFORD – The Caroline County Planning Commission has endorsed a special exception permit to allow construction of a cellular telephone tower at a site off Guinea Road in Woodford.

The commission voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the request from Verizon Wireless. The action came during the panel’s regular meeting on Wednesday of this week. The request now goes to the Board of Supervisors for final action.

The cell tower would be located in the vicinity of the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, but National Park Service officials said Friday they were not aware of the plans and were caught off guard by the news when informed by The Caroline Progress.

The permit for the 199-foot tower is being sought for a site of slightly less than 1 acre near 8308 Guinea Station Road. It is a vacant wooded lot and pasture with the exception of some out buildings.     The property is zoned rural preservation.

The cell tower site appears to be located roughly 3-4,000 feet from the shrine, which is accessed via Stonewall Jackson Road. The shrine is part of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Park superintendent Russ Smith said he was unaware of plans for the tower and was going to contact Caroline County officials to gather information.

“It’s the first I’ve certainly heard of it,” said Eric Mink, the park’s cultural resources manager.

“We usually hear about them (cell phone towers)” from the companies or their consultants that seeking to erect them, added Mink. The permitting requirements of the Federal Communications Commission include considering the potential impacts to natural resources and cultural resources, such as historic sites, noted Mink.

The park service staff typically reviews plans for nearby communications towers and provides comments to local officials It has objected to other proposed communications towers in the past because of their proximity to historic sites and the “visual intrusion” they would impose, noted Mink.

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine is the site where Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died in 1863. Jackson, wounded by ‘friendly fire’ from Confederate troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, was transported to a plantation in Guinea Station, and his left arm was amputated. He died of pneumonia eight days later.

The shrine is the plantation office building where Jackson temporarily stayed and ultimately died. It is the only plantation structure remaining. It also contains some artifacts that were with Jackson during his stay.

“It’s a very treasured site by many Americans,” said park ranger-historian Rebecca Cumins, who frequently works at the shrine. She, too, was unaware of the plans for the communications tower. “I had no idea,” said Cumins.

When it is involved in such issues, said Mink, the park service usually asks what other potential sites have been considered and what alternatives there are. “Is there the ability to provide the coverage that is needed…without possibly putting something of a large visual nature so close to the park boundary and close to our visitor facilities,” he said.

Without seeing the plans for the tower, “it’s tough to say” if it would impact the shrine, said Mink.

The property is owned by Christopher and Lynda Benden, who live nearby on Guinea Station Road.

A public hearing on the Verizon request at this week’s Planning Commission session drew opposition from one nearby resident, Melinda Normand, who also owns a rental home nearby. She was concerned from a business perspective, she said. “I would rather not see a cell tower from this property,” said Normand.

She also expressed concern about how the tower would impact the shrine, which Normand called “the most historic site in the county.”

“It’s a beautiful site over there,” she added.

In addition, Guinea Station Road is designated as a scenic byway, Normand pointed out.

Normand said she is a Verizon customer, and the cell phone service in the community is less than desirable, which the proposed tower is intended to improve. However, she would rather have poor cell phone service than the tower, she said. “I would rather have the beauty of the area…than a cell tower.”

Normand said she was at the shrine recently and told a visitor about plans for the cell phone tower. The visitor’s response was, “Oh, that’s a shame,” recounted Normand.

Charles Rothenberg, a Richmond attorney representing Verizon, told the Planning Commission in response that there would be “virtually no impact” to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.

“We always do our best to minimize the impact on the surrounding area,” he said.

Rothenberg, who also noted the tower would be erected 1,000 feet from the road, said “we are sensitive” to the effects of the tower but added there were “no alternatives.”

In briefing the commission on the request, planner Angeline Pitts said Verizon officials considered the site an “ideal location” and that the tower was needed to meet increasing demand for service.

In recommending approval of the permit request, the Planning Commission included various conditions. One condition requires Verizon to allow space on the tower – for two years – for Caroline County emergency communications equipment. The county is developing plans to upgrade its emergency communications system.

When informed Friday of the concerns of the National Park Service officials, Rothenberg, citing Verizon policy, initially declined to comment and said he would relay questions from The Caroline Progress to Verizon officials.