When a multi-national company comes to town and wants to do something that you feel will change the aesthetic of your town, it's understandable that some residents will be concerned. And what can be even more unsettling is the fact that despite how loud and often we voice those concerns, there are some things residents have very little say over.
Such is the case with cell phone towers.
It seems almost every day we learn about new proposals from telecommunications companies to erect 90- to 140-foot towers in towns around Vermont. Most recently, two new towers, one in Newfane and one in Putney, have been in the news. In Newfane, the Selectboard recently gave its imprimatur to a tower on Browns Road, which was proposed by AT&T. This, after strong opposition to a tower on Oak Hill Road that was nonetheless approved by the Vermont Public Service Board.
"As it turns out, (Browns Road) is a much less controversial spot," said Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack.
AT&T is now running into resistance in Putney, where it has proposed a cell tower on private property on Shag Hill Road.
"There's nothing aesthetic about what you guys are proposing," said one attendee to a meeting in Putney on Jan. 16, even though that person admitted the area needs better cell service. "That is a small, beautiful area. It's not big enough for what you're going to do."
People who live near the site said they are worried it will affect the visual landscape and the once-a-week activation of a generator will disrupt their peace and quiet. There was also some concern expressed about the need for a 1,000-foot-long access road to the site.
For its part, AT&T stated it would "mitigate" the impact on the viewshed by installing a mono-pine, a tower disguised as a pine tree. But as anyone who has seen a mono-pine knows, they stand out worse than a regular tower because the uniformity of their "branches" is jarring and unlike any pine tree most of us has ever seen.
Over the past couple of years, AT&T and other companies have been surveying the state for locations in response to Gov. Peter Shumlin's goal of blanketing the state with cell phone coverage.
Three years ago, in his inaugural address, he launched Connect VT, "an initiative to deliver by 2013 my promise of high-speed Internet access and cell service to every corner of our state." Shumlin expressed concern that Vermont's "connectivity deficit" will relegate the state to "an economic backwater."
In November 2013, Shumlin admitted that despite $174 million in federal funding and millions more from the state (not counting the millions in private investments), Vermont had missed its target and that at least 3,000 Vermont homes still lacked high-speed Internet service. But, noted Shumlin, that's just 1 percent of the total residences in the state.
Jeb Spaulding, secretary of administration, said the state still has more work to do.
"This is not a marathon," said Spaulding, noting improved speed and affordability, as well as greater digital literacy, are targets the state is still aiming for.
It's ironic then, that one of the holdouts for extended cell phone service is Shumlin's hometown of Putney. Or maybe not so ironic, if you consider the culture of Putney, which has been described by some as neo-hippie (which, by the way, we don't consider an insult because it's characterized by liberal values, a concern for the environment, eating healthy and speaking out against injustice).
There is, however, a touch of NIMBYism in not just Putney, but other towns in Vermont when it comes to things such as cell towers and wind turbines. Yes, there are valid concerns with both, but no, you can't have your cake and eat it, too, Marie. If you want a mobile phone and Internet connectivity and a way to power your electronic devices, sooner or later something has to give. While some among us might be able to live off the grid, it's not acceptable to expect all of our neighbors to be able to, or even want to, live that way.
And we've noticed that while lots of people complain about seeing cell phone towers, even more people complain about a coverage dead spot. Not to mention the safety aspect; if you oppose a cell phone tower in your neighborhood you might change your mind if your teenager or your elderly relative is on the side of the road with a flat tire and can't get a signal to call for help.
So while we are sensitive to the concerns of people who don't want an ugly cell tower marring the landscape, there is also the reality that this is the era we live in, with ubiquitous handheld devices that require some sort of connectivity to operate. You can complain that we got along fine without them for hundreds of years, but they're here now and they're not going anywhere, except, really, everywhere.
Perhaps there is some give and take that can occur with the location being discussed in Putney, but more than likely, a tower is going to go up in that area sooner or later. Whatever decision the Public Service Board renders, it's surely not going to be satisfactory to everyone. But if people keep expressing their concerns, maybe there will be enough cake to go around; just don't expect it to taste all that great.