AGHCA, on April 24th, 2009

Improvements To Cell Service Draw Skeptics

with permission from MV Gazette

By JIM HICKEY

American Tower Corporation, the company that wants to build a distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve cell phone coverage in the three up-Island towns, has dramatically changed its proposal following an emotional public hearing earlier this month during which residents raised concerns about aesthetics, finances and health, a company spokesman said yesterday.

Health concerns persist in West Tisbury over plan.
David Pierce, a spokesman for Boston-based American Tower, told the Gazette yesterday his company is revising the plan to increase the number of poles, or nodes, but have less equipment with slimmer poles and a less intrusive antennae. The company presented plans at a public hearing on April 6 for a system using 25 nodes, each about 18 inches in diameter and approximately 40 feet in height,

Plans called for the installation of tri-node antennas with three equipment boxes attached to each pole.

But after a majority of people reacted negatively to the plan, company officials went back to the drawing board, Mr. Pierce said, largely to address concerns about aesthetics. The plan now calls for 47 nodes to be built, on poles around 12 inches in diameter, each equipped with a whip antenna with a monopole design.

Although the new plan has more nodes, Mr. Pierce said it will be less intrusive and blend better with the surroundings. The revised plan is similar to the DAS system currently in place on Nantucket, he said.

“We appreciate the public concerns, and we wanted to be as responsive as possible,” he said.

Mr. Pierce said the revised plans are not yet completed. As a result, American Tower now plans to reschedule a second public hearing on the system; originally set for May 5, the hearing may now be changed to June 8. The DAS committee, made up of selectmen from each of the three up-Island towns, was expected to meet today at noon in Chilmark to discuss the changes and consider the suggested new date for the public hearing.

It remains to be seen if the new plan will quell rising opposition to the plan, especially in West Tisbury, the town that has the already has the best cell phone coverage of the three towns and has the least to gain from the DAS system agreement.

At their regular meeting Wednesday the West Tisbury selectmen fielded complaints from residents who said there had been too little public involvement in the planning of the antenna system, and asked for a public hearing for West Tisbury residents alone.

“I might be a whack-job, but I don’t feel the town needs more cell service,” said Prudy Burt. “Either way, I would like the opportunity to get up and say that.”

Richard Andre said he suspected more people didn’t attend the hearing earlier this month because they didn’t know about it.

“I would like to see this whole process be more democratic. I think more people didn’t make a lot of commotion [at the hearing] because they didn’t even know this was going on,” he said.

Planning board member Virginia Jones said the new system would not provide cell coverage to critical areas along the Island’s south shore, flying in the face of a key stated aim of the system: to improve cellular communication for the sake of public safety up-Island. She said the town does not need to join the party.

“I think you will find many people do not want what will end up being duplicative services . . . we already have cell towers in this town,” Mrs. Jones said.

If West Tisbury drops out, it is unclear what effect it would have on the plan.

American Tower has already applied for special permits in Aquinnah and Chilmark, but has not filed an application in West Tisbury. The town in most need of the DAS system is Aquinnah, because it has the poorest cell phone coverage, and also for legal reasons.

Several years ago, the cell phone provider Cingular (now AT& T), leased the steeple of the Aquinnah Community Baptist Church for use as a cell tower. After the town prohibited the use of the steeple, the phone company sued under the provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which guarantees citizens rights to quality cell service while limiting the grounds on which towns and citizens can challenge the construction of cell phone towers.

A settlement in the lawsuit required Aquinnah to provide AT& T with a suitable alternative to a cell tower.

In West Tisbury this week selectman Richard Knabel, also a member of the DAS committee, said he agreed the town is in a different situation than Chilmark and Aquinnah. But he said dropping out of the agreement would not stop cell phone providers or cell tower companies from applying for special permits in the future.

“I have heard around town that we should just get out [of the agreement]. But what does that mean? All it really means is we don’t participate in this agreement, and subsequently we don’t participate in the revenue sharing agreement. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an application in the future,” Mr. Knabel said, adding:

“I’m not saying West Tisbury needs this or necessarily should have this. I am just saying we as a town are bound by the law.”

Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose said she hopes West Tisbury will stay in the three-town venture. But if they do drop out, she said, Aquinnah and Chilmark have already had discussions about moving forward without them.

“I think it’s a better deal for all of us if they stay in the mix. But if they choose to drop out, that’s fine too. We are prepared to go forward without them,” Ms. Rose said.

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