Tuesday January 22, 2013

NEWFANE -- Town officials have been granted a little extra time to review and weigh in on the aesthetic impacts of a proposed communications tower in South Newfane.

But the Newfane Selectboard has been informed that there will be no review of alternative sites for the AT&T tower.

Nor will there will be, as the town had requested, any attempt to balance the need for cell service against residents' demand for "minimal neighborhood disruption."

All of which means the Newfane Selectboard won't have the impact that officials had hoped for when the state Public Service Board eventually makes a decision on the tower.

"They're listening," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said of state officials. "But their standards have nothing to do with what our standards are."

AT&T's plans to erect a 139-foot tower on Oak Hill Road have caused controversy, with some residents saying the structure would be situated too near a cluster of homes.

The company has rejected a number of suggested alternative sites, saying none would provide an adequate level of cellular service in the Dover Road corridor.

AT&T has applied for a certificate of public good to erect the tower under Section 248a of the state's permitting process. In response, the Selectboard earlier this month drafted a letter to the state outlining some residents' concerns and making several requests:

-- Newfane officials said the Public Service Board should "ensure that due consideration is given" to possible tower sites outside a half-mile radius of the Oak Hill Road site. AT&T had said it would consider sites only within that half-mile perimeter.

-- The state could order AT&T to pay for an independent consultant to examine alternative sites, town officials suggested, or the state's consultants could "balance optimal (cell-signal) propagation against minimal neighborhood disruption."

-- Also, town officials asked for more time to review a consultant's findings.

But it now is clear that most of those requests will not be granted.

In a letter released to the Selectboard, a representative of the Vermont Department of Public Service wrote that the state "cannot direct its experts to conduct a review of omnibus issues voiced by specific landowners."

Rather, Special Counsel Aaron Kisicki wrote, the state will review only "general issues" related to Section 248 permitting.

"However, the Selectboard's comments are sufficiently couched in aesthetic concerns to justify retention of a department-sponsored aesthetic expert to conduct an analysis of the project application and the proposed site," Kisicki wrote.

That report is expected by Jan. 28, and the town has been given until Feb. 13 to review and comment on it.

But Mack doesn't see that extension as being of much use. That's because the state will look only at the aesthetic impacts of a tower at AT&T's proposed Oak Hill Road site and will not examine whether the structure would be more appropriately built at some other site.

"The PSB does not look at it from the perspective of, would it be better here or better there," Mack said.

He added: "We will have a chance to comment, but I doubt it will be of any significance."

Mack also said he would be "shocked" if the state's review found that AT&T's tower would cause "undue aesthetic damage" in South Newfane.

Officials have complained that AT&T was allowed to bypass a town ordinance and apply directly to the state for permission to build the tower. And, while the Selectboard had been assured that towns still play an important role in the state's permitting process, Mack isn't so sure that's true.

Meaningful town input "seems to be largely in name only," he said.

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