Meeting addresses Saxtons River cell tower concerns
SAXTONS RIVER -- The room laughed when Brian Sullivan, an attorney representing Verizon Wireless, said he was taking it as a given that everyone knew Verizon had essentially no coverage.
"Everyone knows that," replied Vermont Academy Headmaster Sean Brennan.
On Saturday morning, residents and neighbors gathered at Christ's Church in Saxtons River to hear about a proposed cell tower and weigh in on the project, which could not be streamlined through the Public Service Board as others are in the state. That is due to a restrictive covenant on the property that involved a state grant given to the village.
The property is currently owned by Harold Buchner and the covenant requires approval by the Saxons River Board of Trustees in order for any structures to be built on the site. The project will be proposed to the state's Public Service Board if approved by the trustees.
Typically, towns boards and commissions act as parties to an application that is then approved or denied the PSB. Sullivan said this was an unusual case.
A facility near the 110-foot tower would be 12-feet by 30-feet and it would house the equipment necessary for running the cell site. It would also have an emergency generator in addition to other electronics.
If desired, emergency service groups could put an antennae onto the tower. The type of equipment most typically used by emergency services was less sensitive to being blocked by trees, Sullivan noted.
His group decided if it were to design the proposed tower as an artificial pine tree, as others in the state have been, it would draw attention rather than having it blend in. So, for now, it is proposed as is. But that could change if community members or trustees felt differently.
"If that's the preference to have a tree, I'm happy to do it," said Verizon Wireless Real Estate Consultant Andrew Davis.
According to Louis Hodgetts, an engineer from DuBois & King Inc., the intention of the project is to build a tower on a ridgeline at the top of the Warner Center Holdings property. The location was chosen due to the proposed tower's ability to have signals reach the village as well as an I-91 corridor lacking Verizon Wireless 4G coverage.
One map had areas -- or "holes" -- currently without 4G coverage. Another map labeled "Rockingham South Vermont Post Construction LTE Coverage" showed how coverage would improve with the proposed tower.
"In order to fill this in, we realized we'd get more bang for our buck if we come over this ridge," Davis said.
According to Davis, the primary objective his group was tasked with involved getting coverage in Saxtons River and Buchner's property met all the needed criteria. He said he was unable to tell when he'd come back to this area if the board rejects the proposal and a back-up site for improving coverage in Rockingham had not yet been identified.
"I have a solution that works," he added. "I really wanted to focus on that."
The tower would have enough room for at least one other service provider, such as U.S Cellular, Sprint or AT&T. The practice is referred to as "colocation." When asked why other companies were not included in the proposal, Sullivan cited anti-trust laws.
"We can't just sit down and say, ‘We're going here. You're going there.' It starts to look like we're conspiring to fix prices and service levels," he said.
Attendees were assured there would be no lights on the tower and noise would not be an issue. They were told the trees in the vicinity of the site would block out much of the sound if the generator ever needed to be turned on.
The aesthetics of the project came under fire. The area is currently undeveloped and used for walking.
"This will change my world in Saxtons River. And that's a big deal," resident Shea McGovern said. "I want coverage but my question is can't you find a more commercial site where there already is development? This is a big change for Saxtons River."
As far as future uses of the land, Buchner said he had no other plans for development on the land.
Speaking of economic benefits, Sullivan pointed to the potential for taxing the proposed structure.
"We think that it will help businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, to attract customers who want to use their cell phones," he said. "I think there will be indirect benefits."
Brennan spoke of how Vermont Academy constantly loses students due to the lack of cell service.
"Where there's lack of services, there's going to be a problem," he said. "I'm telling you right now that if we don't continue to improve that, that will affect Vermont Academy and that will affect Saxons River."
Trustee Ben Wallace mentioned that part of the purpose of the meeting was to learn what conditions should go along with potential approval. The trustees will likely discuss the proposal again at their regular meeting on Aug. 25.
If approved, the construction is expected to take the length of a summer to complete. Although heavy equipment may travel the roads during the tower's construction, snowmobiles or ATVs would be used for any maintenance once construction was completed. The site will be remotely monitored from another location.
"The intention is to use an existing logging road that accesses up the hill, connects into the existing VAST trail and then follows existing logging roads and existing woods trail to the project location," said Hodgetts. "The intention is to not really expand the tree clearing in the area. We are trying to maintain as small of a footprint as possible."
He added that an 8-foot wide path would be created from where the VAST trail begins and it would go to the tower site with an additional clearing of 3 feet for underground utilities installation. The plan includes having roads re-seeded, which would go back to being grass.
A culvert failed during a storm causing erosion on a road. Hodgetts was proposing the road would be filled back in and the culvert would be replaced.
"We will replace the culvert again to upsize it to ensure that culvert will not fail in the future and erode that road," he said, also making it clear the wetlands would not be affected by the project and noted there was significant deer habitat on the hillside.
If the trustees approve the proposal, project leaders will need to let the PSB know that they intend to submit an application at least 45 days before it is submitted. That notice will be sent to abutters and town bodies. Concerns would be directly handled by Verizon Wireless during those 45 days.
"We work with them to try and resolve them before we file the application," Sullivan said.
Once an application is submitted the PSB, there is a 21 day comment period, during which all comments go to the PSB.
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.
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