An appearance before the West Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA) last week by representatives of the American Tower Corporation (ATC) featured contentious discussion about permitting authority and town views on wireless communication towers. ATC is the company selected to build an up-Island wireless distributed antenna system (DAS).

ATC met the zoning board December 2, in the first public pre-application discussion of its proposed DAS system. Although the meeting is the first step in the West Tisbury ZBA approval process, ATC said it was not required.

ATC legal counsel Ken Spigel said that the need for a ZBA special zoning permit is legally “murky” due to “imprecise language.” ATC’s interpretation of the town bylaws is that because ATC is a utility company, only the selectmen need consider an application for siting of poles and equipment along the town’s public right of ways, and the selectmen are empowered to make a “grant of location,” according to Mr. Spigel.

The ZBA has a differing view, based on a legal opinion from town counsel who found that the ZBA is empowered and required to consider the approval of such permits.

Permitting authority aside, ZBA vice chairman Roger “Tucker” Hubbell focused on the issue of whether there is a need for increased cell service capacity in West Tisbury and whether DAS or wireless towers are the preferred technology.

DAS relies on a series of antennas set on telephone poles to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less than in conventional systems, DAS appeals to communities where high steel towers are unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.

West Tisbury partnered with Chilmark and Aquinnah to issue a request for proposals for a DAS system. Chilmark and Aquinnah proponents see the system as a means to preclude towers, and in a joint permitting meeting last month, both towns signaled their approval of the ATC proposal.

But it was clear last week that not all West Tisbury officials accept the notion that DAS is a better alternative than towers.

Mr. Hubbell said that there are currently five cell phone equipment sites in West Tisbury, including three towers. AT&T currently has a 30-foot tower located at Martha’s Vineyard Airport and the company has requested permission to raise that to 75 feet, with room on its tower for two other cell phone carriers. Mr. Hubbell said that perhaps West Tisbury only needs one more traditional tower, instead of DAS.

Mr. Spigel also provided a review of the Federal Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996, which limits the ability of municipalities to block wireless communication companies from installing equipment meant to improve service. He said recent court rulings state that a carrier cannot be denied a permit for cell service equipment because there are other carriers or available capacity.

Mr. Hubbell remarked that the FCC regulations require only “adequate coverage.” He said that when ATC files its formal request for special zoning permits, the company is going to have to come back to the ZBA “and show the coverage in West Tisbury and what DAS is going to do to coverage in West Tisbury.”

ATC representative Tamara Slade reviewed the current ATC plan to erect antennas at 55 locations (8 in Aquinnah, 24 in Chilmark and 23 in West Tisbury).

ZBA member Nancy Cole said, “I have always been surprised that the system has been designed to go down the main roads but the worst coverage is along the beach or at the State Forest.” Selectman Richard Knabel, who represents West Tisbury on the three-town DAS committee, said that the company has followed the specifications of the RFP to follow the main town roads. “The RFP was not designed to provide 100 percent coverage from day one,” he said. Ms. Slade said that the company would come back and provide more coverage if needed.

Several property owners asked if antenna nodes could be moved from the locations now shown on the ATC’s planning maps. Mr. Spigel and Ms. Slade assured residents that the company is willing to move equipment 50 to 100 feet from current sitings, as long as the new desired location has a technically required line of sight to the next node.

Resident Virginia Jones questioned whether roads, including Lambert’s Cove Road, could be used for DAS nodes because they have not been laid out by the town or accepted by the town. Mr. Knabel stated that Lambert’s Cove Road and Indian Hill Road, where nodes are planned, are considered by the state to be owned by the town. “The state has provided maintenance money for those roads for years, and regardless of deeds, the town owns those to the edge where private property begins.”

Unresolved was what West Tisbury residents want. Mr. Knabel said that the bylaws in West Tisbury were written to “make it difficult to build towers, because that is not something we want.”

Mr. Hubbell disagreed. “I beg to differ that the whole town was against towers,” he said, noting that the town has permitted three new cell towers. “So the bylaws are not so bad that no new cell company will come to town.”

Ms. Jones said that she was a member of the planning board when the bylaw was written in 1999. “It was to give the community some control but not to discourage towers,” she said. “We did not want to discourage towers.”

Mr. Spigel said that communities often prefer DAS because the antenna can be “camouflaged” and the technology allows for significant capacity to increase data, especially the data demanded by iPhones, for example.

“The DAS involves a large number of fibers and they can carry a lot of data, so for the foreseeable future the DAS will meet the demand,” Mr. Spigel explained.

If ATC decides to seek a permit from the ZBA, it now has 30 days to file its formal application. A public hearing would follow an application for a special permit.

The three towers now used by wireless communication companies to mount antennas are the pre-existing fire tower on Indian Hill, located on state property; a 70-foot tower erected at the private Flanders property on Old Stage Coach Road; and a tower located at the county-owned airport. In addition, there are several antennas located on airport property buildings.

The town does not receive any lease fees in connection with those towers, Mr. Knabel told The Times following last week’s meeting.

Mr. Knabel said the town’s existing wireless zoning bylaw includes requirements that would make it difficult to permit a new tower on an existing town property.

Under the current DAS proposal, ATC would sign up carriers and the three towns would receive a portion of the lease fees.

Following this meeting, ATC project manager Alex Gamota told The Times, “We are working with the planning board and will take the necessary steps to get our network permitted.”

Mr. Gamota added that, “There is clearly the need for coverage in West Tisbury, whether it is DAS or towers, and ATC is interested in providing that coverage.”

Mr. Gamota previously said that from the company’s point of view, conventional towers are easier to erect and far less costly than DAS. The next step in the process is a three-town contract, after which ATC would secure wireless providers to use the new system.

ATC officials have refused to comment on its plans should the proposed three-town project ultimately involve fewer than three towns.

by Susan L. Silk