Monday February 25, 2013

WARDSBORO -- Plans to bring high-speed, wireless Internet service to Wardsboro are on hold amid concerns about public perception and protracted negotiations.

Five months ago, Springfield-based VTel Wireless Inc. received state approval to place antennas in the steeple of Wardsboro Methodist Church on Main Street.

But the project has stalled, with a representative saying church trustees have heard community complaints and still are considering their own questions.

"We just want to do things right," Nancy Perkins said.

VTel President J. Michel Guité said there’s still a chance the project could happen. But he also admits frustration.

"What we can’t do is have (another) six months of talks," Guité said.

VTel is in the midst of a statewide, government-supported effort to spread broadband access to every home.

"We’re doing 200 sites around the state," Guité said. "Most are doing really well."

The company’s efforts don’t always include construction of new towers. In summer 2011, representatives first began talking with directors of the Wardsboro church about using the building’s steeple as an antenna.

Plans call for placing six panel antennas within the steeple, with state documents saying those antennas "will not extend vertically or horizontally from the structure or increase the surface area of the structure."

The idea sounded good to church trustees.

"We thought, ‘Well, why not,’" Perkins said, recalling those early discussions. "This is a good thing to do -- to provide people with broadband."

There were other benefits. Perkins said a multiyear deal that trustees eventually struck with VTel would have provided the church with some supplemental revenue while also not changing the look of the building, which dates to 1835.

"I’m quite certain of that," Perkins said. "I’m positive that it will not alter the appearance of the church."

She pointed out that, when original VTel plans called for an exterior cabinet on one wall of the church, trustees declared that a "deal-breaker." VTel quickly redesigned the system.

"So they said, ‘OK,’" Perkins said. "That, for us, was an example of how good VTel has been in addressing our concerns."

In September, the state Public Service Board granted approval for the project. Within a few months, however, church directors began to hear concerns from some property owners who said they opposed the project or had not been notified.

Perkins said the construction had not required local zoning approval, so there had been no public hearing. But church trustees heard enough complaints that, in December, they decided against continuing with the project.

"The trustees did say ‘no’ to VTel, knowing that there would be a penalty," she said.

There were rumors that "the church was hiding something, and we were deeply concerned about that," Perkins added.

Guité said VTel has "lost six months" on Wardsboro planning while also going through the state regulatory process.

"It’s frustrating, because we put our reputation on the line by going to the Public Service Board," he said.

At the same time, though, Guité said he understands that "a church isn’t the same thing as a corporation." So he pledged that VTel would not pursue any legal or financial penalties if church leaders remain opposed to the project.

"We would be delighted if the church wants to do it," Guité said. "If not, we would forgive all and tear up the contract."

Perkins said she still is corresponding with VTel about a possible public meeting to answer more questions. It’s not clear whether that will happen, but she wants the church’s neighbors to know that there was no attempt to push through an unpopular project.

"We definitely want people to understand that we weren’t leaving people out of the loop," she said.

Guité could not speculate on whether there would be another Wardsboro site suitable for a VTel broadband facility.

"It’s hard to say," he said. "But we want outcomes where the public would say, ‘We’re pleased with what’s happening.’"

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