Monday January 7, 2013

NEWFANE -- In the continuing debate over a proposed cell-phone tower, the Newfane Selectboard is looking for more time and hoping for a compromise.

In drafting a letter to a the Vermont Public Service Board Thursday, Newfane officials did not ask that the state approve or reject AT&T's tower project in South Newfane.

Instead, officials requested an extension of the Public Service Board's comment period to allow for further, independent review. And they pushed for a solution that will satisfy AT&T and residents while bringing much-needed cell service to the town.

"We are requesting that the PSB ensure that the means of providing this coverage optimally balances (cell-signal) propagation with homeowner concerns," the Selectboard's letter says.

"We are hoping for a solution that will satisfy AT&T's need for a cost-effective solution and the Town of Newfane's need to enhance cell coverage without undue hardship to homeowners."

AT&T in November notified the town of the company's intention to build a 130-foot tower on Oak Hill Road. Company representatives have said they want to provide consistent cell-phone coverage in the Dover Road corridor.

On Thursday, Selectboard members disclosed two new developments: First, AT&T has accepted a recommendation from Windham Regional Commission that the tower be built, as others in the area have, with false pine branches attached to ease aesthetic impacts.

Second, officials said AT&T on Dec. 20 submitted its formal tower application to the Public Service Board under the state's Section 248a permitting process. That triggered a 21-day comment period, two-thirds of which already had passed when Selectboard members gathered Thursday evening.

"We're not really in a position to kind of ‘wait and see,'" Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said.

The board's resulting letter makes several points in what Mack dubbed a "balanced" approach to the tower controversy:

-- The tower, as AT&T has acknowledged, violates height and setback requirements in a town ordinance passed in 2007. While the Selectboard did not say so explicitly in its letter, the company has chosen to bypass the town's ordinance and apply directly to the state.

-- Board members noted that "several residents whose property is in close proximity to the proposed location vehemently oppose it" based on concerns about property values, "unpredictable long-term health effects" and "unacceptable levels of noise pollution during generator operation."

-- There are concerns that "AT&T has not exercised sufficient due diligence in seeking alternative locations that are not in such close proximity to multiple dwellings," the letter says.

-- However, the board also wrote that many residents -- including some near the proposed tower location -- "have expressed strong support" for the project.

"In addition to convenience and potential business advantages of being able to use cell phones in their homes and cars, they have repeatedly stressed the importance of cell-phone accessibility in an emergency situation," the letter says.

-- Selectboard members also noted that the town's conservation commission, after initially voicing concerns about the tower, dropped its objection after a balloon test showed that the structure would not be visible from a lookout on the town trail.

The board's letter concludes with two main requests.

Newfane officials want to "ensure that due consideration" is granted to tower sites situated outside a half-mile radius from the Oak Hill Road property -- a perimeter the company had imposed on alternate sites.

The Public Service Board could require AT&T to pay for an independent consultant to examine such possibilities "under the Town of Newfane's supervision," the Selectboard suggests.

Or, the state's consultants could be directed to weigh optimal cell coverage against "minimal neighborhood disruptions," the board wrote.

Additionally, the town wants an extended comment period "to ensure that the Selectboard has time to consider the independent consultant's findings."

The Public Service Board is not required to agree to such an extension or to order additional study of AT&T's tower plan.

Mack said the Selectboard is doing what it can but lacks the authority to exert any stronger influence on the project.

"We are allowed to have input, and that's what we're attempting to provide," he said.