Key West & Goliath: Neighbors square off with AT&T over tower

For four years now, concerned residents of the Key West neighborhood on Route 20 North have been battling telecommunication giant AT&T over the company's plans to place a 103-foot cell phone tower in the neighborhood. That battle will come to a head on September 11, when the proposal comes up for final approval by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

Armed with research showing that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, that it will depress real estate values, harm the environment, and could potentially cause health problems, Key West residents hope to nix AT&T's plans.

"AT&T is attempting to improve its profits substantially by placing the tower in the middle of our neighborhood," says Key West resident Bob Toplin. "Clearly, the Board of Supervisors ought to stand up for the county’s citizens in a situation such as this."

 The Key West neighborhood, just a few miles north of Pantops Shopping Center, is only about six minutes from downtown Charlottesville, but the community enjoys a kind of peace and quietude typically found much farther out in the country. Deer roam the neighborhood in herds, unafraid of being hunted, and long-time residents there— which until earlier this summer included this reporter— are protective of that peace.

"We've evaluated a variety of options, and this site will provide residents of Key West and the surrounding area with the wireless phone and mobile Internet coverage they want and need," says Daniel Langan, a spokesperson for AT&T.

However, during an August 26 meeting with Key West residents at Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Valerie Long, the local attorney representing AT&T, got an earful from Key West residents who do not want, or think they need, a cell tower in their neighborhood. Long assured residents that the tower would be unobtrusive, and that the company was "sensitive to the fact" that residents had concerns. Like Langan, she also explained that the tower was designed to improve and expand existing service in the area, including service for Key West residents.

Toplin and others argue that this isn't a "not in my neighborhood" situation and that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, either on nearby farm property on Route 20, in Pen or Darden Towe parks, or even somewhere on the Meadowcreek Golf Course.

"But AT&T prefers to have the tower on private property at 415 Key West Drive," says Toplin.

Key West Drive snakes through the neighborhood and follows a high, steep ridge on the western edge of the subdivision that provides spectacular views and overlooks the Dunlora and Belvedere neighborhoods— service areas that AT&T wants to target.

Typically, such towers are in more remote locations, high up along mountain ridges or in fields on farmland, but this tower will be within feet of nearby neighbors, one of whom appears to have cut a deal with AT&T. The long-time property owner, Joan Elledge, could not be reached for comment, and she does not live on the property. AT&T is not disclosing the terms of the lease arrangement with Elledge.

"As absentee owners, I guess they do not have to face their many unhappy neighbors on a day-to-day basis and they do not have to live, personally, with the tower," says Toplin, who suspects that AT&T offered the property owners an attractive leasing arrangement for thousands annually.
"The hillside location is nutty for a tower," says Kent Sinclair, who lives right next door to the proposed tower location. "The base of the pole is about 60 feet below the living and sleeping area in our home. Thus the top of the pole where the three six-foot antennas will broadcast is 40 feet above my bedroom."

"Imagine the thought of you coming out of your home and seeing a 103-foot steel pole, significantly higher than the tallest tree," says Key West resident Stephanie Lowerhaupt, who lives across the street from the proposed site.

Residents argue that the tower's presence not only will be dramatically out of character with the neighborhood, it will depress property values, affect the environment, and could lead to health problems.

"Myself and other neighbors submitted appraisals of our two adjacent properties from a licensed appraiser with a conclusion of a 10 percent reduction in real estate value due to cell tower construction," says Key West resident John Clem. "The county did not accept the appraisal saying there were no comparable properties in the appraisal, but there are no comparable situations to this for comparison."

In addition, the area where the tower is to be built is along a “critical slope” with more than 25-percent degree grade drop, making this a vulnerable environmental area that requires a zoning waiver.

"Already there is evidence in the place near the proposed platform of strong water runoff that has taken away ground soil," says Toplin, "taking it down over a cliff-like topography and dropping it down towards the Rivanna River."

Toplin also cites growing scientific evidence that RF (radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation)  emitted from these towers may cause health problems, even cancer.

According to Toplin, new evidence suggests that chronic exposure to RF— not just driving by a tower or working next to one, but living in close proximately for a long time—  has the potential to cause health problems over time.

"This site has steep slopes and runoff challenges," says Supervisor Ann Mallek, "and I need to hear how the applicant would address those issues, as well as the aesthetics of a cell tower in a neighborhood. Other issues are not allowed to be considered by the FCC."

Indeed, the 1996 Telecommunications Act prohibits communities from denying the placement of these towers based on health concerns. However, case law has shown that the impact on the neighborhood and the environment, and the concern of the neighborhoods, has been a factor in denying such tower placements.

Finally, Toplin and company hope they get a fair shake at the September 11 meeting, where AT&T's representatives will be out in full force.

While Toplin says that county supervisors have "been wonderful" about listening to residents' concerns and giving their time to an investigation of the tower issue, he hopes they'll get equal time at the actual meeting.

"Key West citizens should not be marginalized by being told that they can only speak at the opening section of the meeting when there are “public comments,” says Toplin.  "Isn’t it inappropriate to allow AT&T to control the floor in that main section of the meeting while Key West citizens have to remain silent? There are two voices that need to be heard here."

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AT&T could be a good corporate citizen and save everyone a lot of time and money by finding another location where the property owners in the community aren't so passionately opposed. I live in Key West. I fear for our property values if a tower goes up in the middle of our neighborhood and I think any homeowner in any neighborhood should be able to relate to that. Yes, we all want better cell service but paying off one person to use her backyard for the location of a new tower is unjust and unfair to the other 200+ homeowners here. AT&T: Put your tower/antenna on top of a nearby commercial business and stay out of our neighborhoods (ALL of our neighborhoods) ! PS: Verizon has 4/5 bars in Key West.

This is a slam dunk for Key West. That is Supervisor Ken Boyd's neighborhood. Nothing bad will be allowed to happen in Key West.

Shorter key west residents: "find a poor neighborhood to put it in where the residents aren't as well connected."

Ugh, unless they can make it resemble the Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, I don't want it in our neighborhood. Someone should get the Architectural Review Board to demand it look like something Thomas Jefferson would have built. Perhaps a larger porch.

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The black mamba

Not in my backyard!

"Toplin and others argue that this isn't a "not in my neighborhood" situation and that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, either on nearby farm property on Route 20, in Pen or Darden Towe parks, or even somewhere on the Meadowcreek Golf Course."

Whenever someone says this type of thing, you can be sure it IS a "not in my neighborhood situation"

Angel Eyes said:
"Toplin and others argue that this isn't a "not in my neighborhood" situation and that the tower could easily be placed elsewhere, either on nearby farm property on Route 20, in Pen or Darden Towe parks, or even somewhere on the Meadowcreek Golf Course."

Whenever someone says this type of thing, you can be sure it IS a "not in my neighborhood situation"

How perceptive of you - NOT!

The argument there is not NIMBY, but NIABY - not in anyone's back yard. It is perfectly possible in this instance.

Deer roam the neighborhood in herds, unafraid of being hunted...


Another example of how people use government to tell everyone else what they can/cannot due to their personal property. I love how people like to throw around "potential health concerns" regarding cell towers, yet have no problem with a cell phone next to their brain.

Bobby, your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Is it really so hard to understand that each individual cannot simply do what s/he chooses without being accountable to the effects it has on others?

And - what, exactly, did this story have to do with gubmint trampling rights? This is much more clearly a story about private entities trampling rights. Perhaps you could learn to think beyond generic, ideological tripe.

Oh did AT&T try building a cell phone tower on your nose? You apparently think your rights extend to anywhere you can see, not where your property line actually begins.

Dat, you're kidding right? Your brain can't possibly be *smaller* than a pea can it?

Give me your address. I'll buy the property next door and put in a toxic waste dump.

Structure with no pollution = toxic waste dump. Who is the one with a small brain here?

You are the one with the small brain.

What you do affects others. The fact that you have decided that an AT&T tower cannot cause anyone else harm is irrelevant. Those around it see harm. Someone down the road from me did actually start an unauthorized dump - no it wasn't specifically for toxics, but he let people dump whatever he wanted to there. Apparently he didn't think a dump next door was a problem either.

Going back to the original point - it was completely and utterly idiotic to take what I said and talk about AT&T building a tower on my nose. It doesn't take a genius to get the point. Everyone who whines about "gubmint" trampling people's private property rights is basically just saying that we should instead allow private parties to trample our rights.

Get over it. The folks in that neighborhood have every right to try to look after their neighborhood.

Good to see a mature discussion of the situation.

I wonder if subdivisions can ban cell towers with hoa codes, like they do certain kinds of fences or etc? Clearly lowers the property value of the neighbors- and clearly is a health risk, no matter what the law says (basically: even though this is a health risk, legally you are not allowed to act like it is one.)- and that's why those codes exist anyway right? So the neighbor cant park 8 washing machines and 3 wheel-less cars on their lawn and lower property values for all and sundry....

The only sources claiming cell towers are a health risk I wouldn't trust to tell me the time of day. I bet all these people scared of towers still have cell phones and wi-fi for their iPads.

Hey put PAT NAPOLEON in charge she will get it straight for you.

She can tell you how to talk, walk, and whatever else she comes up with.


Curious how far away think people have a right to tell others how they use their property. You only own your land, and inasmuch your neighbors property is not stopping you from using your land (a toxic waste dump would obviously be damaging to your health and environment, so it's pretty much the lamest straw man argument that gets rolled out every time the NIMBYers get their panties in a wad). "No highways because children's lungs!!!!" "No cell phone towers because I'm ignorant of science and!!!" Or "we don't like the way your private property looks because its too modern and doesn't fit with our stupid opinion of what a rural neighborhood should look like!"

Never do they explain where they draw the line. It's always "we'll do whatever it takes to get ours, and screw everyone else" and often the Albemarle county board is happy to oblige.

I work in the wireless industry and actually handle real estate acquisition of cell towers. I do not work for AT&T, but have in the past. Part of the problem, especially in the County is they limit the height of the towers to no more than 10' above the tallest tree within 25' of the tower. Usually we can find a tree that is taller than the rest, but not always. If the county were to allow taller towers they may be able to place out of the community on a agricultural property. Since they are so low, the reach of these sites are very limited due to the trees causing interference.

My guess is AT&T told the acquisition agent where they needed a site and they found one person who was interested.

@Uppitywhitepeoplearetheworst, "we'll do whatever it takes to get ours, and screw everyone else" is exactly what you are supporting.

What do you mean where to "draw the line?" You want an absolute one-size-fits-all line? That's ridiculous. Is it so odd to think that people in a community should be allowed to discuss and influence those things that affect their quality of life?

Bringing up waste dumps is not a straw man. It simply makes a point. But it's obvious that you go by "[I'LL] do whatever it takes to get [MINE], and screw everyone else." I'm not sure that's what I was taught about being a citizen. There are very nice and remote areas in the world where you can go be your own little island. Perhaps you should just find one.

It is a straw man, which is a logical fallacy, so no, you did not make a point. I actually used logic to clarify why a waste dump is not OK but you have yet to make any honest, logical argument for why a neighbor cannot have a cell phone tower on their property as long as it complies with the laws that are already in place. I think that it is one thing to influence the actual laws as they apply to *everyone* (reasonable regulation would be that a cell phone tower has to be a certain distance from structures on other people's property -- that's a potentially valid safety concern), and another to get special privileges just for *your* neighborhood because you are well connected to the board. I don't need to move to a remote island because I actually support property rights and the rule of law and that they be consistently be applied to everyone -- you just want lawlessness where everyone gets to say what other people can and can't do with their property. Pretty ironic, really. Maybe you should move to a remote island that is free of cell phone towers.

Maybe you should stick to one screen name.

So now I see. As long as it's ok with existing regulations then its ok. I had no idea we had achieved such perfection. Perhaps you are right. You should not move to your own island. You apparently need state regulations to specify for you what it ok and what is not ok.

It was not a straw man. It was an extreme case. In principle, however, it is no different. The reasons for concern were clearly stated in the article and none of them are baseless. I'm afraid that far from using logic, you seem completely incapable of it.

But your illogic has convinced me. If my neighbor does something to harm my interests but it isn't against existing regulations then it must be ok. Heil to the regulations. I have no rights as a citizen or property owner to say anything unless the existing regulations tell me its ok.

Thanks for the civics lesson. What really petrifies me is that you think that you are somehow speaking for our rights as individuals. It is perversely the opposite.

Do the people in the valley have the right to stop a mountaintop home in thieir viewshed?

Do the people on the mountain have the right to stop the people in the valley from building in their viewshed?

Does your neighbor have a right to put up a Ham Radio tower in that space? (I think under federal law they do)

Do they have the right to install a 50' statue of Jesus Christ? I KNOW by law they do.

Do they have a right to cut every branch off of a tree and leave the dead tree standing with 100 birdhouses on it? (I think they can)

The Government needs to tread very carefully when denying rights to a landowner. Todays cell tower might be tomorrows barbecue grill with its offensive odors.

In Bethesda MD. smokers are not allowed to smoke on the balconies of apartment complexes even on the top frickin floor of a two million dollar Penthouse. BY LAW.

I understand the alternative,s but suppose that homewoner was a young quadrplegic and needed the money for living expenses for the next 50 years. Would your "rights" trump his?

(I am neither for nor against I just an nervous whenever NIMBYs try and take over. )

When you buy a piece of property, you are not also buying a vote onto what others can do with their property, just as your neighbors didn't buy a vote into yours. The exception to this, of course, is a homeowners association that is signed and voted on by the community. I find it distasteful that a group of neighborhood bullies will fight an individual in the name of preserving their property values. I bet Key West residence would be happy to have it placed in a poor neighborhood, just as long as they can't see it when they walk out their front door.

Bill I agree with the concerns you mentioned. If we ignore the property laws on the books and just let whoever cries the loudest determine law, I'm scared at what we would end up. What if someone bought a piece of property with the expectation that certain business activities would be legal (such as placing commercial retail or a cell phone tower or any other number of things), and now let's suppose a neighboring property puts up a bunch of McMansion style homes which attracts a large number of NIMBY type people to move in, who never consider the land owners around them or the rights of those landowners to use that property for business activities. Now they just have to show up in mass and complain to the council and they can make *his* property value drop immensely.

Regulations are never perfect but following the laws on the books or changing them through the legal process is far more preferable than the chaotic anarchy WTH supports. If the laws are actually unfair, then we have a process to change them. The Albemarle board of supervisors should grow a spine and consider actually making that law if they really believe cell phone towers shouldn't be allowed near residents. Of course they love having the power to grant favors to some while ignoring others.

Well, KS, I have been involved indirectly in cell tower installation and they are absolutely FANATICAL about not exposing the workers to the emissions from the towers at close range. The difference between cell phone and cell tower is like the difference between being hit by a hot wheels car and by a hummer. the slope of the land is a major concern if it places neighbors w/in a certain radius of the top of the tower. And Bobby, if you buy your property in a subdivision with an HOA, then that is exactly what you are doing, but within certain limits.

Regardless of the impact on neighbors or whether they ought to be able to dictate what happens on nearby property, there is still the issue of a critical slope in an area that affects the water quality of the Rivanna. The real issue is whether or not a waiver ought to be given and I don't see anyone arguing that it should or why it should.

The other issues, such as the aesthetic impact can be considered by law as the article points out. So, those issues have been raised. What is it about "law and order" people that makes them suddenly change their tune when they don't like the way the law actually works?

My neighbor does a lot of stuff that could be considered questionable in terms of it affect on other neighbors. (None of it would work in an HOA).

Do you know what we do? We keep in touch. We discuss things. We talk to each other about issues. As such, we do not call the cops or the lawyers or the legislators. We simply respect each other and each others rights. That's the way people in a free society need to behave if it is to remain free.

The person who owns this Key West property is simply saying "[I'LL] do whatever it takes to get [MINE], and screw everyone else."

Well - that's what will bring in the state and its regulations and the lawyers. So all of the whining "state regulations impinging on private rights" people should spend a little more time thinking about why the state and lawyers and stuff like that end up involved to begin with. It comes from people doing this quasi-religious "I'll do what I want with my own damn property" attitude.

You know why I don't call the county or a lawyer on my neighbors? Because they act like neighbors. They know that their exercise of their own personal property rights can sometimes impact me, and vice versa. So we keep in touch and manage it ourselves. Learn to see the red herring and get off the religious ideology about "the State" impinging on private property rights. It's not some foreign and far off "power" - its just what people have to appeal to when their neighbors act like A!@ holes.

The Enlightenment based, founding-father dream of the free society will not emerge from getting "The State" off of your back. It will emerge when you start seeing yourself as a citizen who shares the world with other citizens. Then "The State" becomes less and less relevant.

Many of the absolute "private property rights" people remind me of the people of Krikkit when they realized they weren't alone in the universe.

The "critical slope" issue mentioned by wholiesmoke's - btw - is not a different issue from treating your neighbors decently. Once you bring the Rivanna impact into it, all that does is expand the number of neighbors that you have in mind.

How about the complainers give up their cell phones.... Any takers?

They've been microwaving me for over a decade without me ever having owned a cell phone. I just got one for my job, that means I'm brave, it doesn't mean I don't want them all banned and all the base stations demolished.

I had a tracphone for my Pizza Hut job ten years ago for a short amount of time. I hadn't owned one between then and now.

well said, WTH.

This is very much interesting. Thanks for sharing this useful information.
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