The effort to build a distributed antenna system to improve cell service in the three up-Island towns is approaching the finish line, but some up-Islanders, practiced as all Islanders are at the art of last-minute obstruction and selective disparagement of municipal leadership, are determined to make the path ahead difficult.
Their efforts may very well push at least one of the towns, West Tisbury, into court. They will certainly delay better service for all three towns. And, they may, under the banner of keeping cell service decisions in the voters’ domain, foolishly cast away that current local authority, leaving judges and big cell companies to work things out.
The up-Island DAS movement began with five motivating ideas. First, no one wanted a forest of gigantic cell towers spreading across the landscape. (Gigantic land-based wind turbines may, for bewildering reasons, enjoy a different reception.) Second, nearly everyone agreed that federal law is unequivocal in providing for ever improving cell service everywhere, and for allowing local voters and officials to guide the installation of necessary structures to improve service, but not forbid them. Third, most residents, emergency services personnel, and town officials agreed that better service – and service extended to areas not now served – is needed. Fourth, if the towns hosted the DAS service, there might be some income realized by town governments, as compared with a tower system eventually installed on private properties, which might improve the fortunes of the landowners, but not the taxpayers. And finally, most residents reject the notion that there are unknown or suspected health risks associated with the installation of facilities to serve cell phone communication.
So a tri-town committee, including town officials who have approached the matter with every possible ounce of seriousness and thoughtfulness, have brought the possibility of a DAS system to the edge of contractual agreement. As we report this week, West Tisbury zoning board of appeals vice chairman Tucker Hubbell, in a hearing last week that was intended to consider whether the DAS proposal before the three towns might be permitted in the Athens of the Island, made the issue whether there is a need for increased cell service capacity in West Tisbury and whether DAS or wireless towers are the preferred technology. After all, Mr. Hubbell said, the feds require only “adequate coverage,” and that may be what prevails already.
What does West Tisbury, and for that matter, what do Aquinnah and Chilmark want? If there remains a question, it must be, How can we furnish the most extensive and best quality cell phone service, in the interest of safety and convenience for town residents? What else can it be? The next question would logically be, What are the tradeoffs between lots of small DAS towers and several big conventional towers?
Because of the quality of the leadership that has guided this long examination of the alternatives over what have been, astonishingly, years of deliberation, residents of all three towns ought to be willing to rely on the members of the DAS committee to make a sound decision on the best way to make needed improvements to up-Island cell service, and do so without unnecessary additional delay. If there is a role for the zoning board, it is to shape a permit that realizes the committee’s decision, with appropriate safeguards.