Cell tower approval process undermines democracy

Saturday February 16, 2013

Cell tower proposals have intensely occupied the The Town of Newfane for the past four months. The process as it has unfolded provides a disturbing example of how corporate interests exercise undue control over public resources and democratic processes.

Whatever the intent of the Sate of Vermont's telecommunications statute (Act 248a), its practical effect is to dramatically overload the equation in favor of the telecommunications industry to the extent that any local democratic processes are almost entirely ceremonial.

In allowing telecommunications corporations the "option" to seek approval either through the municipality or the state authority (Public Service Board), duly enacted municipal ordinances are, for all intents and purposes, nullified. By asking that municipalities make recommendations to the PSB while preempting local ordinances, the legislation gives the appearance of local democratic input while undercutting the reality.

The threat, expressed at Newfane Selectboard meetings by both public officials and corporate spokespersons, is that the telecommunications companies will simply walk away, leaving localities with gaps in cell coverage that are harmful to business, inconvenient to most people, and sometimes seriously dangerous in emergency conditions. Perhaps out of this fear -- along with the difficulty of getting telecommunications companies to come to the table -- current legislation all but completely deprives localities of meaningful input in these decisions.

This has put the Newfane Selectboard in an impossible position. The Selectboard knows that our town needs cell coverage, but the town's duly enacted ordinance sets requirements for height, setback of towers and adverse aesthetic impact. AT&T presents a specific site already negotiated with and signed by the property owner. We are asked to give a "recommendation" to the PSB as part of the "process," with the town's own ordinance cited where it agrees with the telecommunications firm and dismissed as irrelevant where it does not. The local ordinance also considers the long-term issues in cell tower construction, most notably the requiring that towers be properly removed when no longer in use. The state's Certificate of Public Good carries no such requirements.

Because the PSB must decide, up or down, to take the telecommunication firm's offer or leave it, there is no room to insist that the firm respond seriously to local concerns, particularly with regard to the choice of site to ensure that all alternatives are considered and the best site for all concerned is chosen. The PSB's standard of "undue adverse aesthetic effects." does not allow for consideration of the relative aesthetic impact of one site versus another. (The state's "independent evaluator" found that there were, in fact, adverse aesthetic effects, but not undue aesthetic effects.)

When representatives of the Selectboard met via teleconference with the "hearing officer" of the PSB (the lawyer for AT&T was also invited on the call by the PSB as an active participant), it was made clear in no uncertain terms that the town's concerns with the violations of its ordinance and the need to consider alternative sites outside the .5 mile radius set by AT&T were irrelevant and immaterial to the PSB's decision-making process.

All the cards are in the telecommunications companies' hands. Despite the fact that they are the beneficiaries of licenses that are a public asset, they essentially dictate the terms of proposed coverage. In this case, the ability of AT&T to insist that they would only consider sites within .5 miles of the site they'd chosen essentially closed off consideration of sites that might provide similar coverage without adversely affecting townsfolk.

In this way, the State of Vermont has essentially followed the pattern of the federal government, allowing corporate interests to dominate the conversation while giving lip service to the concerns of those most directly affected.

This is neither a partisan nor an "anti-telecommunications" position. We need cell coverage. AT&T will provide it, but if and only if they do it their way. The State of Vermont has made it easy for them to do so rather than finding ways of ensuring those most affected by the construction of facilities have a real say in their placement. Under these conditions, the hours and hours of the Selectboard listening carefully to townspeople's concerns and drafting its recommendations are a charade, not a legitimate exercise in democracy.

Jon Mack, Ph.D., is the Chair of the Town of Newfane Selectboard. This article states his personal opinion and is not an official communication of the Selectboard.


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