VTel discloses Newfane tower plans

Monday December 24, 2012

NEWFANE -- Vermont Telephone Co. Inc. has confirmed plans for a 150-foot communications tower in Newfane Village, and administrators say the project will be submitted for state permitting within weeks.

Springfield-based VTel's president dubbed it a "great design" that will bring high-speed, wireless Internet to 176 homes that currently have no broadband access. The tower also would allow room for collocated equipment from two additional cellular or communications providers.

Plus, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark has a deal to place his radio-communications equipment on the tower, which would be situated near his Jail Street office.

But that location -- in the middle of a picturesque, historic village -- is sure to cause some concern. And VTel is taking heat for bypassing a town telecommunications-facility ordinance and instead applying directly to the state.

"It's hard to feel that the ordinance that Newfane has on the books was respected," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said.

This is the second time that issue has arisen in just the past few months. AT&T is applying to the state Public Service Board for permission to construct a 130-foot cell tower on Oak Hill Road in South Newfane.

That project has been the topic of several heated meetings packed with concerned residents.

So Selectboard members are concerned that, once again, they are hearing about a tower project for the first time even though it is relatively late in the planning process. Mack said he was rebuffed in several previous attempts to learn about VTel's proposal.

"What is most disturbing is a lack of directness and honesty," Mack told J. Michel Guité, VTel president.

Guité said he wants to work with town officials but also warned of a tight schedule: VTel expects to send its Newfane application to the state Public Service Board within three weeks.

"We're open to advice," Guité said. "But we don't have much time."

He attended Thursday night's Selectboard meeting with Connect VT Chief Karen Marshall and tower consultant Karl Rinker of Barre-based Rinkers Communications.

Rinker offered the first firm details of VTel's proposal:

-- The monopole tower would stand 150 feet tall and would be built 18 feet from the northern wall of the sheriff's office.

-- That site is 120 feet from the nearest home, Rinker said.

-- And he has calculated a 41-foot "fall zone" -- that is, the maximum distance the tower could fall from its base. That's due to a built-in weak point 109 feet up.

Rinker said that, in the event of "unusual" severe weather, the 41-foot top section -- which would be carrying the weight of communications equipment -- would be designed to fall.

"It's highly unlikely that the bottom 109 feet would fall over," he said.

Clark said his department's current communications tower -- which stands 87 feet high with a 20-foot antenna on top -- is attached to his office and is in poor shape. In fact, guy wires are sagging because one leg of the tower is broken, Clark told the Selectboard.

"The current standards that Karl's talking about makes (the proposed VTel tower) safer than the one I have now," Clark said.

Clark disclosed that, as of Thursday, he had finalized a partnership with VTel to mount his department's communications equipment on the tower. He expects the new tower to significantly improve the radio signal that deputies rely on.

Also, the proposal means significant savings for the sheriff's department.

"If I had to replace (the current tower), that's a cost I would have to pass on the community and the county," Clark said.

VTel has said it is undertaking an expansion of its wireless-broadband network, an initiative that includes about 180 sites statewide. Newfane is just one of those communities that are "covered by a grant awarded to VTel by the Vermont Telecommunications Authority to extend our federal broadband stimulus-funded network," a company spokeswoman has said.

VTel is moving fast: The new network is expected to be operational next year.

Guité said the project addresses wireless-data needs in less-populated, rural areas where "giant carriers" such as Verizon often don't see much potential for investment.

"We're filling a niche that the giants aren't so interested in filling," he said.

And Marshall said the Route 30 corridor is "one of our major target areas for service."

She was hired to ensure that the state is meeting Gov. Peter Shumlin's goal of extending broadband to all Vermont homes by the end of next year. With federal financial backing for that effort, Marshall said timing is critical.

"If we do not spend the federal funds within a time period, we lose those funds," Marshall told the Selectboard.

She also said the state's streamlined permitting process was designed to put such projects on a "fast track" while also ensuring that town officials and residents still have ample chance to comment.

"By no means whatsoever . . . were towns and municipalities to be excluded," Marshall said.

Newfane will receive a copy of VTel's application to the Public Service Board. And the company is asking the town for a letter of support.

Selectboard members did not immediately act on that request Thursday. Mack said public input will play a big role in determining the board's stance.

"We want to hear from the townsfolk, from the historical society, from anybody," Mack said.

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


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