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Tower lawsuit in Spotsylvania headed for settlement

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

A lawsuit claiming the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors wrongly denied a permit for an AT&T cellphone tower could be settled within a month.

AT&T filed the suit last year, shortly after supervisors turned down its request for a special-use permit for a 183-foot tower behind Victory Bible Church off Five Mile Road.

Supervisors will discuss the suit in closed session at their meeting Tuesday.

A mandatory settlement conference with the county and AT&T is scheduled for Feb. 1, and a trial will be in April if the case hasn’t been dismissed or settled by then.

The suit, being heard in U.S. District Court in Richmond, asks the court to order the county to issue a permit for the tower. It says supervisors violated the Telecommunications Act by basing their decision solely on “constituent testimony that was unsubstantiated,

speculative, impossible, incredible, implausible and unsupported by any evidence.”

Eleven residents, most of whom live near the site of the proposed tower, opposed it during a supervisors public hearing in March.

County staff had recommended issuing a permit for the tower. But after the hearing, supervisors voted 6–1 to deny the tower. The only supervisor who supported it was Emmitt Marshall.

AT&T currently has an antenna on a water tower at Cherry Road that provides coverage similar to the proposed structure. Supervisors directed the county to keep that water tower, which has been decommissioned and had been planned to be torn down.

An AT&T attorney had indicated that the water tower site served the company’s needs, according to the minutes of a March 2012 meeting.

That’s why some county officials say they’re confused by the suit.

“I don’t understand the basis for the suit,” Supervisor Paul Trampe said. “I thought we were doing what they wanted us to.”

Asked whether the county may agree to let AT&T build a tower on File Mile Road, he said: “I don’t think there’s any move in that direction.”

County Attorney Jacob Stroman said several counts in the lawsuit have already been dismissed. He takes issue with the remaining claims, including that Spotsylvania’s denial of the permit will result in a service gap.

“Clearly, if the antenna is being allowed to remain on the county’s water tower, the county can’t possibly be preventing AT&T from providing service,” Stroman said. “I scratch my head at AT&T’s decision to file a lawsuit under these circumstances.”

He said the county continues to discuss a potential settlement.

Alexandria attorney Edward Donahue, who is representing AT&T, could not be reached for comment on Friday. An AT&T spokesman declined to comment.

Supervisor David Ross, whose Courtland District includes the proposed site of the tower, said it wouldn’t make sense for the county to tear down the water tower. AT&T, he said, pays $1,300 a month for space on it.

“It’s a revenue producer,” he said. “I don’t understand the logic in moving it.”

County staff, however, has said keeping the water tower will cost money. It’s structurally sound but will need about $80,000 in “cosmetic” improvements, said County Administrator Doug Barnes.

Ross mentioned the possibility of partnering with private industry to improve the old tower. Maybe a business could paint it in return for an advertisement on the structure, he said.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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