After Board Ruling on AT&T’s Short Hill Plan, Questions Remain

After Board Ruling on AT&T’s Short Hill Plan, Questions Remain

The Loudoun Board of Supervisors last week put to rest the notion of putting 160,000-square-foot AT&T telecommunications substation, which some critics say resembles a data center, atop Short Hill Mountain, at least for now.

While some skeptics asked the board to overturn a commission permit for the facility based on noncompliance with the Comprehensive Plan, the county attorney advised supervisors to base their decision on AT&T’s withdrawal of the request.

The victory for opponents was acknowledged, but questions remain about how the proposal was administratively switched from a special exception requiring a vote by supervisors to a commission permit needing only the approval of the Loudoun Planning Commission.

“The rest of this whole process leaves me with a lot of questions,” said Sam Kroiz, who owns a farm near Short Hill Mountain. “What’s going to stop it from happening again?”

It’s unclear how the application was under review as a special exception until February 2016, when things changed. By the end of the month, it was being called a commission permit because a county staff member did not believe the proposal would be considered a data center.

At the end of April, AT&T received approval for a commission permit to construct a 35-foot-tall structure along the ridgeline of Short Hill Mountain, but after public opposition mounted, AT&T withdrew its request. With the intent to make that decision difficult to appeal, the Loudoun board overruled the planning commission’s approval.

Numerous residents, some donning reds shirts, spoke in opposition of the proposal. Several questioned how the application process changed, while others said the impact to the mountain would harm the rural economy. Others expressed concerns about the environmental impacts on the mountain.

And while AT&T has stated on numerous occasions that the facility was not a data center, a letter from land use planner Christine Gleckner regarding traffic said there would be a minimal number of employees, “as with other telecommunications facilities and data centers.”

Supervisors asked County Attorney Leo P. Rogers to publicly state his recommendation that the board’s decision be based on AT&T’s withdrawal, said, “This is the most defensible position the board could take.” He also pointed out that nothing prevented AT&T from reapplying in the future.

Some speakers wanted the board to make clear that the proposal did not comply with county regulations.

“We’re asking, we’re begging you to take a stronger position,” said Sarah Stinger before the board voted.

Supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), said AT&T representatives assured them the company has no interest in reapplying.

“The answer I got was they want nothing to do with Loudoun County’s permitting process in the near future,” Buffington said.

Higgins said he understood the residents’ concerns, but that he believed “a vote to deny based on the merits is not the best path forward.”

For now, opponents can have a victory while watching for AT&T’s next move.