It’s not the War of the Roses, but it’s turning into the war of the faux-loblolly pines in James City County – a battle that’s divided some Kingsmill residents and pitted the county against one of its own boards.
One government board will meet tonight to decide if they need to hire an attorney to get through the conflict, which is headed for Circuit Court.
It all started with a decision by JCC Planning Director O. Marvin Sowers on March 3, 2008. He approved two camouflaged cell phone towers, 120 ft. tall towers made to look like loblolly pine trees, to be located near the soccer field in Kingsmill. AT&T and Verizon planned to build one tower each.
The county approved the idea, but the plans did not go forward because a group of residents in
Kingsmill didn’t want the towers there – or in any neighborhood, for that matter.
“The county ordinance says that these towers should be unnoticeable,” says David Neiman, one of the founders of the Kingsmill Wireless Communications Advocacy Group. “But these things are like pine trees on steroids. Believe me, you’ll notice them. They’d be surrounded by deciduous trees, too, so in the winter, imagine how they’d look. Pretty noticeable.”
The Kingsmill Wireless group also has a host of other reasons why they believe the towers are a bad idea, including their claim that the area where the towers would be placed is an historic site, with artifacts that may be from African Americans who lived on the old Kingsmill Plantation.
Kingsmill Wireless shouldn’t be confused with the Kingsmill Community Services Association, which functions as a homeowners association but also represents Busch’s corporate interests. That group wants the towers to be built.
Kingsmill Wireless, which was organized by some residents in response to the planned towers, appealed the original planning director’s decision.
The appeal went to the county’s Development Review Committee. The committee induced some compromises on the part of AT&T and Verizon, and the county Planning Commission approved it.
The Kingsmill Wireless group appealed again, this time to the Board of Zoning Appeals, a quasi-judicial body.The BZA overturned the decision by a 3-2 vote on December 18, 2008.
This was a win for Kingsmill Wireless, but a problem for James City County, Verizon, AT&T, the KCSA, and Busch Properties, Inc., all of which have appealed the BZA decision.
Now, it’s up to the judge at the circuit court to make the next ruling.
The county’s stance, according to Deputy County Attorney Adam Kinsman, is that the zoning board didn’t give the planning director’s decision the proper weight. “They substituted their decision for his,” Kinsman says.
The county argues that the county code in question, Section 24-122(d) that deals with cell towers, was adhered to in the original decision.
The code says that the cell tower will be permitted in all zoning districts, as long as they’re considered “camouflaged” by the planning director. Therein lies the problem.
In order to be considered camouflaged, a tower must meet one of the following criteria: 1) it has to resemble other structures that are permitted in the district, 2) it has to have the appearance of vegetation native to eastern Virginia, or 3) it must be surrounded by a 100-foot buffer of mature trees or something similar which will provide the effect of such a 100-foot buffer, that will make the structure unnoticeable to the casual observer.
The two communications companies argue that their plans comply with the code.
The Kingsmill Wireless group hired a licensed arborist, according to Neiman, who said that loblollies don’t grow in the area. They hired an engineering firm that measured the site and, among other things, found that the current trees will not make the 100-foot buffer on every side.
“We think that if someone compares the ordinance with what’s being proposed, it clearly does not comply,” Neiman says.
Both sides have compiled mountains of paperwork and exhibits, all of which sit in Kinsman’s office. Each side has photo-shopped images that show what the loblolly-esque towers would look like – the Kingsmill Wireless images show ugly, looming giants, and those in favor of the towers have images where the towers seem to melt right into the background. All groups involved have spent lots of money on gathering information for their exhibits and plan to see the process through to the end.