By Jann Wiswall
The task before the Great Valley Planning Board was straightforward. Horvath Communications, a cell phone tower company, requested a special use permit and site plan review to locate a cell phone tower on private property. The owners of the property had agreed. The board was to look at the application and approve or deny the permit. That was in March 2015.
The planning board identified problems from the start. The original application was incomplete, and there were issues between adjacent property owners with property lines, easements and rights to the access road. The planning board requested further information and solutions.
Over the next few months, Horvath came back with more complete information. By then, a debate among residents had erupted and the two sides – for and against the tower – made their views clear to the planning board. One side, including Horvath and Verizon’s attorneys, argued that the tower, which would be leased by Verizon (and potentially other service providers), would improve not just Verizon cell phone service but would also improve emergency response time. The other side argued that the tower would hurt people’s views and that there was no guarantee that there would be better cell phone service.
Plus there was still a major issue with legal access to the site.
By June, after more site plan revisions and public discussion, it became clear that the proposed site was not going to work, so Horvath withdrew its application and went back to the drawing board. The planning board tabled the issue.
Since then, Horvath looked at numerous other sites, conducted new engineering studies and reviewed an independent engineering study contracted by the dissenting property owner.
In February, the company finally went back to the planning board and proposed a new site, which happens to be one of the four sites recommended by the independent engineer. It’s on the same private property but deeper into woods that will partially shield the tower from the neighbor’s view.
At the Feb. 10 planning board meeting, the board and town engineer Aaron Tiller determined that the site plan and special use permit applications are mostly in order. However, it was still unclear if access road easement issues have been completely resolved from a legal perspective.
The planning board also requested a balloon test to certify the tower’s height and conduct a photo simulation of the visual impact. That test was completed on Feb. 22.
While balloon tests are generally optional, planning board chair Chris Schena said the board decided to order it because “we want to be sure we have done everything possible and left no test undone.” We have to be able to assure the public that “we are taking this very seriously. We have to do it all right,” he said.
Town Supervisor Dan Brown, who has been following the project closely, said that the planning board has done a thorough, complete and objective review of the project to date. In his opinion, “it has done its best to set emotions aside and just look at the facts,” he said.
The next step in the process is for the planning board to determine if all of its issues have been addressed and to vote.
Tiller notes that the planning board has very clear standards to follow in making its decision and, in the end, they will follow zoning law.
Schena hopes a vote will be possible at the March 9 meeting. He also said that, no matter what decision the town makes, there likely will be hard feelings and, possibly, lawsuits.
“There’s a lot of emotion around this project. In the end, I just hope the community gets the improved cell service Verizon and Horvath have claimed it will get.”