Saturday November 17, 2012

NEWFANE -- With the lingering memory of losing her land-line phone service after Tropical Storm Irene, Jan Knowles believes Newfane desperately needs cellular coverage.

"It's a safety issue for our town," Knowles said. "It's a big safety issue."

But a proposal to finally bring cell service to Newfane -- via a 130-foot tower on Oak Hill Road -- isn't winning endorsement from Lynn Hildebrand, who is concerned that the structure will be in her "backyard."

"This is really going to impact our lives," she said.

Knowles and Hildebrand were among residents who packed a Newfane Selectboard meeting Thursday to debate the tower proposal. Also present were AT&T representatives and Karen Marshall, a state official pushing for universal broadband and mobile coverage in Vermont.

In the middle are Selectboard members, who did not immediately take a position on the matter.

"We listened to everybody tonight," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said. "I can't say anything further at this point."

AT&T expects to soon apply to the Vermont Public Service Board for a certificate of public good to erect the tower in South Newfane.

Will Dodge, a Burlington attorney representing AT&T, traveled to Newfane Thursday with a detailed presentation portraying the project as low-risk, low-impact and necessary to dramatically improve wireless communications in Newfane.


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In terms of wireless coverage, "Newfane is not good," Dodge said, adding that a tower in Putney "is providing what little coverage you have."

Marshall, chief of Connect VT, said about 55 percent of Newfane addresses have wireless coverage. Towns with less than 75-percent coverage are considered a priority for improvement, she said.

"So there's certainly a need," Marshall said.

Dodge said the chosen site -- a parcel leased from William and Florence Staats -- is well-suited for a tower: For example, there is relatively easy access, which reduces the amount of clearing needed.

The company recently flew a balloon at the proposed tower site. An expert drove around Newfane and reported that there would be "relatively low visual impact" from the tower, Dodge said.

The attorney also said the tower would not have any impact on wetlands or wildlife, does not require lights and presents no risk from radio-frequency emissions.

The company has acknowledged, however, that the tower would violate the town's ordinance governing telecommunication facilities.

First, Newfane's ordinance says towers cannot stand more than 20 feet above the tree line, which is about 60 feet high at the proposed site.

Dodge said the tower's height -- exceeding the town's regulations by a full 50 feet -- is necessary "to get better coverage and accommodate other co-locaters."

Also, the town's setback regulations would require the tower to be built nearly 200 feet from the nearest property line. AT&T's proposal places the structure just 52 feet from that line, though administrators say the structure would be constructed according to rigorous safety standards to minimize risk.

Some in the audience were not impressed. Dan DeWalt of South Newfane said Dodge had offered "nice pictures" but had not explained why Oak Hill Road was the only feasible site for a tower.

"I think it's ridiculous that you could not find another location in Newfane," DeWalt said.

Pursuing the same theme, Mack said town officials had reached out to AT&T several times and had received no response before being presented with a detailed, fully formed plan.

"It did feel like AT&T did not do due diligence in terms of working with the town," Mack said.

Dodge said the company would be willing to examine three or four alternate locations if they are proposed by residents or town officials. But he cautioned that it's not just about elevation: The company considers factors including power availability, road access and population density when choosing a tower site.

"To get the better signal ... you need to have the antennae closer to where people are," Dodge said.

Others raised concerns that a tower could hurt property values. Dodge responded by pointing out that "in some cases, the lack of cell service has led to a reduction in property values."

Not everyone was opposed to the tower. Knowles spoke in favor of it and recalled that, in the wake of Irene, AT&T set up a temporary mobile facility and handed out free phones to Newfane residents.

Newfane resident Stephan Morse, a former state legislator who serves on the Vermont Telecommunications Authority board, said it has not been easy to attract investment from cell-phone companies to Vermont.

"I think we ought to take advantage of this and not put them under great duress so that they don't walk away," Morse said.

Marshall also urged residents and officials to find a way to make the proposal work in Newfane.

"It is the greatest challenge that we face in our projects -- site acquisition, and trying to find the right one," Marshall said.

Town officials previously had thought that the Selectboard would be required to hold a public hearing and vote on the matter. It turns out that AT&T needs only the state Public Service Board's approval and simply is asking for a favorable recommendation from the town.

"We could not recommend it, and the PSB could go ahead and give you your certificate," Mack told AT&T representatives.

The Selectboard still may vote on the tower. But Mack also noted that residents also can get involved when the state considers AT&T's proposal.

"The public is allowed to comment on this to the PSB directly," Mack said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.