Newfane Selectboard considers telecommunications options

Seeks intervention, support from PSB in cell tower proposal by AT&T

NEWFANE — Two proposed towers - one a cell tower for AT&T and the other a VTel broadband tower that would replace the existing radio tower belonging to the Windham Sheriff's Department (see related story, this issue) - have kept the Selectboard busy listening to concerns from residents and deciding how to move forward getting their concerns addressed.

Selectboard Chair Jon Mack expressed his frustration repeatedly to AT&T and VTel representatives at meetings this past month that the town had been left out of their considerations “until” they needed their help or a letter of support.

Mack noted the town's wireless communications ordinance the town worked hard to put in place requires a permit from the Selectboard for cell phone towers but - by a quirk of state law - only if the utility does not choose to go through the Public Service Board permitting process instead.

The primary function of the law (act 30, section 248a) is to shorten the permitting process for utilities, often the longest impediment to getting a tower up and running.

Mack is quick to point out that, in the case of the AT&T cell tower proposal, the residents want a cell tower. During Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, residents who had cell phone coverage noted how vital it was for them when their power was knocked out, while others told stories of not being able to contact anyone without coming into town to make their calls.

But the site that AT&T has chosen, in a housing development of about 20 residents, is in one of the more densely populated areas in Newfane.

Residents had asked AT&T to consider other sites that were more wooded with less population density when given an opportunity to speak with representatives on Dec. 6. Mack felt AT&T was not particularly open to considering alternative sites.

Letter to Public Service Board

Seeking to find a way for Newfane residents' concerns to be considered by the state Public Service Board, Mack said the board has written a letter to the quasi-judicial state regulatory agency which “tries to balance our need for cell service with the particular choice of site which has raised serious questions from residents.”

The letter, dated Jan. 7, noted that the board's first objection is that AT&T's “application is in conflict with the Town of Newfane's Wireless Communications Ordinance, duly ratified in 2007.”

The company proposes a tower that is 73 feet above the tree line, rather than the 20 feet allowable under the ordinance.

The letter argues that the plans can be interpreted as “evading a standard” that the town has set in place.

“The fact is by current practices [telecom companies] want towers that are going to be cost effective, rather tall,” Mack said - but, he added, that “doesn't mean they can't build smaller towers.”

AT&T's stated interest in having a 133-foot tower is to be able to make it large enough to lease space to other telecommunications companies.

“AT&T has not shown any interest in a shorter tower,” Mack said.

The Selectboard also complained to the PSB that the company has not worked hard enough to explore sites that aren't close to a number of homes.

“They object to AT&T's insistence that the only alternate sites to be considered are those within a 0.5 radius of their proposed site,” the letter said, noting that the company did not consider a site that was only 1.8 miles away.

Residents asked why AT&T could put up something in the middle of their development without abiding by the same covenants that “are a part of their deed, and are to regulate the use of their property to prevent any perceived adverse impact on the aesthetics of the development.”

The Selectboard had requested the PSB assign an independent consultant to advise them, at AT&T's expense. AT&T “counter-proposed use of the state's agency to hire a consultant at their expense,” which would not cover other potential alternative sites.

The town also told the PSB that it had asked AT&T to withhold its application until officials could review a report from Jim Porter, director of the state Department of Public Service's telecommunications division and smart-grid policy.

“AT&T rejected this request,” the letter says.

The Selectboard has requested a 21-day extension to review any findings by an independent consultant, and has asked that the PSB “ensure that due consideration is given to sites outside the .5-mile radius [from the proposed site].”

The board has asked the board to direct AT&T to pay for an independent consultant under the town's supervision or to direct independent consultants to “balance optimal propagation against minimal neighborhood disruption in its considerations.”

The Newfane selectboard has received the official filing of the AT&T proposal. Mack noted that the filing date was on December 20, which allows for a 21-day comment period to begin for anyone wishing to respond on the proposal to the Vermont Public Service Board.

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