with permission from the MV Times

By Jack Shea

The up-Island Distributed Antennae System (DAS) committee on Friday postponed its scheduled public meeting on May 4, in order to provide more time to address recent objections and questions regarding a proposed system designed to improve wireless communications.

The postponement will provide time for American Tower Corp. (ATC) of Boston to revise its earlier proposal for the cell system in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury. The delay is also intended to give West Tisbury’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA) time to sort out the permitting process.

The next meeting is now scheduled for 6 pm on Monday, June 22, at the Chilmark Community Center.

DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes connected to small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for the specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less than in conventional, tall-tower systems, DAS appeals to communities where a tall conventional tower is unwelcome and wireless telephone service is poor.

American Tower is expected to file an application to the West Tisbury zoning board of appeals before the June meeting, according to DAS committee members.

The decision to delay the meeting comes in the wake of a contentious five-hour public meeting on April 6, during which some Chilmark and West Tisbury residents objected variously to the need for a system at all and to the aesthetics and location of poles in the plan presented by ATC. Several residents also voiced health and safety concerns.

Amercian Tower’s new plan, reviewed in part by the DAS committee last week, substitutes 47 antennae nodes with eight foot whip antennas mounted on 12-inch-diameter poles in place of 25 nodes mounted on 18-inch poles throughout the three towns. The new plan also includes emergency backup generators on the nodes. ATC also plans an onsite review of the location of its proposed pole locations during the week of May 4, the committee said.

After the April 6 public meeting, some West Tisbury officials questioned whether their town ought to continue in the DAS effort. West Tisbury enjoys the best cell phone service currently among the three towns.

One cell tower is located on private property, one is on the fire tower and another is located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

At its meeting last Friday, DAS up-Island committee chairman J.B. Riggs Parker, a Chilmark selectmen, asked West Tisbury selectman and committee member Richard Knabel about West Tisbury’s continued participation in the project.

“The local newspapers are reporting chinks in the armor of unity on this project. Regionalization is difficult, but I think we ought to repair [chinks] and move forward and see what we can do,” he said.

“One problem West Tisbury faces is a process problem,” Mr. Knabel responded. “We simply don’t know whether the ZBA has jurisdiction or not over placement of the poles.” West Tisbury, unlike Chilmark and Aquinnah, does not have a zoning bylaw applicable to cell phone towers, although it does have a permitting bylaw that covers them.

Asked whether a majority of West Tisbury residents favor the DAS plan, Mr. Knabel told the committee, “That’s certainly a component. We simply don’t know.”

He said that while there were negative comments at the public hearing, it is uncertain whether the views expressed reflect the majority view.

In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Knabel said “If we are persuaded by voter sentiment to withdraw, we will do it. That doesn’t mean we don’t think it’s a good idea, it means we would not participate in this particular agreement. That’s all we would be saying.”

The federal Telecommunication Act of 1996 (TCA) limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. The act also forbids permitting bodies to use health and safety concerns as a reason for not permitting systems that meet the FCC safety standards.

“This is a very complex issue,” said Mr. Knabel. “For example, if we say no, it doesn’t mean another operator such as ATC can’t apply to build a system or that individual carriers won’t be able to exercise their right to build their own DAS system to support service they already have. Legal precedents and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 are clear on carriers’ right to build, and that local zoning ordinances may not prohibit systems.”

The examination of the DAS alternative began in Aquinnah more than two years ago when voters mounted a multi-pronged effort to take control of the town’s wireless future and prevent the erection of a tower by creating a wireless overlay district that would allow for the placement of DAS equipment at the town landfill.

Aquinnah then sought to cooperate with Chilmark and West Tisbury. Although the towns could potentially earn some income from a DAS, the selectmen said their goal is to provide better wireless service for residents and visitors, which has a public safety component, and buttress efforts to guard against unsightly tall cell towers.