Friday November 9, 2012

Lack of cell phone coverage is an oft-heard complaint here in Windham County. Coverage in most areas outside of Brattleboro is spotty at best, non-existent at worst.

In this day and age when virtually everyone has a cell phone, this lack of coverage is not only an inconvenience for those who like to stay connected with family and friends, it is also an impediment to business growth. Local business owners need better cell phone service if they want to stay competitive, and the county needs better service if it wants to attract new business.

There’s also the issue of safety. For example, suppose there is a car accident or other medical emergency in some remote area where an injured person can’t get to a landline. Having a cell phone within reach could be a matter of life or death. The injured person could call for help immediately instead of hoping and waiting for some passerby to come across the area, and enhanced 911 service through better cell coverage would allow emergency responders to pinpoint the location within the town from which a wireless call or message is placed.

Cell phone giant AT&T has submitted an application that could help alleviate the problem of cell phone coverage in part of Windham County. Last week the company notified officials in Newfane of its pending application to the Vermont Public Service Board for permission to build a 130-foot cell phone tower on Oak Hill Road.

The company needs the approval of the Newfane Selectboard because the town has a 2007 ordinance regulating telecommunication facilities.

AT&T says its proposal would meet "substantive criteria" of that ordinance. For instance, the tower does not require lights under Federal Aviation Administration regulations and will not make "undue" noise.

However, the proposed tower -- at more than double 60-foot the tree line -- would exceed the town’s height limitations. Also, AT&T wants to place the tower 52 feet from the nearest property line, but Newfane regulations require a setback of nearly 200 feet based on the tower’s height. The company, though, writes that "the tower will be designed to virtually eliminate the risk of collapse" and will "fold into itself, not topple, in the unlikely event of a collapse."

Still, Selectboard members already are hearing concerns. Bruce Hesselbach, a member of Newfane Conservation Commission, says the proposed tower would be too near other houses and "might be detrimental to the neighbors." He also worried that the tower would impede the view of those who hike the town forest trail to reach a lookout.

While we are sympathetic to the concerns of nearby residents, we hope this isn’t merely an issue of NIMBYism.

Either way, however, the proposed cell tower deserves careful consideration and much discussion. The town ordinance requires that the board hold a public meeting on the matter. No doubt this will be a repeated topic over the next few weeks.

AT&T is asking for the town’s decision by Dec. 14 and is offering to send a representative to Newfane to discuss the plan.

"We look forward to working with the community and the town through the process," AT&T spokesman Will Keyser said. "We’re hopeful that we can address any concerns that might exist. This is an area we’d very much like to provide wireless service to. There certainly is a demand."

There certainly is. But while spotty or nonexistent cellular service is a chronic problem in the West River Valley, board members will have to weigh that against possible detriments.