Wireless in Vermont, Part One

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(Host) There’s a real estate boom going on in Vermont. But this boom is not at the ski resorts or in the suburbs.

This land rush is for vertical real estate. Telecommunications companies and real estate partnerships are eyeing Vermont hilltops as sites for new cell phone towers. Dozens of new facilities are planned by several companies doing business in Vermont.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports in the first of our series, Wireless in Vermont, state and local officials are overwhelmed by the tower boom.

(Sound of background discussion at a Vermont League of Cities and Towns meeting.) “There is a sign up sheet that went around and I guess it didn’t make it into the back of the room¿ It’s coming around again and if you could sign up that would be very helpful¿.”

(Dillon) About sixty local officials from throughout Vermont jam into a Montpelier meeting room. They’re here to swap information and maybe figure out a way to work together on cell tower issues.

Tower development is a state, regional, even national issue. Cell phones, after all, are part of a national communications network. But the first review often falls to local volunteer boards.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns organized this meeting. And it’s obvious that many town officials are swamped:

(Pat MacDonald) “I guess my concern is we’re still talking application by application.”

(Dillon) Pat MacDonald is on the Berlin Select Board. Several companies want to put up towers in her town:

(MacDonald) “And one of the hearings I went to, one of the applicants put up kind of all these circles of where they want to see their towers¿. And when I saw that, I was really concerned because there’s a lot of circles¿. And that’s just one carrier.”

(Dillon) By one state estimate, three companies plan up to 200 new cell facilities around Vermont.

Those all won’t be towers. The companies prefer to site the antennas, where possible, on tall buildings, on barn silos – even inside church steeples. One company has negotiated with the town of Pownal to put an antenna on the flag pole outside town hall.

This works in many places, especially within cities and towns. But to fill the dead spots in coverage throughout the state, dozens of free-standing facilities are also planned.

The boom has put many Vermonters in an uncomfortable position. The unspoiled views and pristine hilltops are cherished. But callers get frustrated when their cells phones cut out halfway through a conversation.

The scale of the development has left environmental officials scrambling to keep pace. Ed Stanak is the coordinator of the District 5 Environmental Commission in Barre. The three-member board administers the Act 250 land use law in north central Vermont, which governs cell towers:

(Stanak) “We’re trying to piece together where are existing facilities that might be able to cover the same area. It’s more than just service providers trying to find locations. We now have corporate entities who are proposing the tower infrastructure – more or less real estate companies¿. So the market to a certain extent is setting the pace. ¿So there’s all these complexities of issues that we’re trying to work our way through as these applications are being filed.”

(Dillon) On the wall of his small office, Stanak pins a giant map that shows many of the towns in his district. Stanak’s trying to find out where towers are already, and match that with where the news ones are proposed. He says that should help his Commission get a look at the big picture:

(Stanak) “And as you can see, we’re focusing on the I-89 corridor ¿ primarily because that’s where we’re seeing the towers proposed at the current time. And since the 1970s there have been public policies in Vermont declaring this corridor a scenic corridor.”

(Dillon) There’s no state agency responsible for tower planning and development. Stanak believes Vermont missed a chance years ago to prepare for the tower boom:

(Stanak) “My personal opinion is that the state, perhaps ten years ago, should have or could have adopted policies in anticipation of what we’re now experiencing, so that there could have been a more meaningful response from various state agencies in a coordinated fashion.”

(Dillon) Tom Brazier also relies on a lot of maps. On the wall behind him, maps are tacked together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of Vermont. Brazier is the Vermont representative for ATC Realty Company, a division of the Virginia-based Mesa Communications Group. It’s the country’s fifth largest tower developer.

ATC isn’t a telecommunications company. It develops vertical real estate. The company scouts for potential tower sites and then leases space to the cell companies. Brazier says ATC is concentrating on the interstates and other major highways:

(Brazier) “We are certainly just getting started. Our target areas right now are Route 2, I-89. We’re just getting started on Route 4 and … eventually we’ll probably be out on the I-91 corridor.”

(Dillon) Brazier says they try to make the towers as unobtrusive as possible. The company plans to build monopoles in Vermont. These are smaller structures rather than multi-sided grid-like towers that are common elsewhere.

(Brazier) “We’re trying to make these facilities, even if we have to build more of them, fit in with the environmental and aesthetic climate of the state… . So we try to spend whatever time it takes to work with the landowner and work with the communities to come up with a plan that works well.”

(Dillon) The tower boom is driven by technology, competition and consumer demand. Cell phones work by capturing signals that are bounced from antenna to antenna. Because of the frequencies involved, the phone and the tower must be within a line-of-sight. Vermont’s hilly terrain presents a particular challenge. And the next generation of personal communications devices, phones that can get e-mail and Internet service, operate on higher frequencies. So the towers and antennas for these systems have to be closer together than conventional cell towers.

Under a 1996 federal law, towns can’t outlaw towers. And they’re also prohibited from regulating towers due to health concerns over radio frequency radiation. But John Groveman, a lawyer at the League of Cities and Towns, says towns are not powerless. He says they can pass zoning regulations that steer towers to a particular area. And he says Vermont law enables towns to collect money from the tower companies.

The fees pay for experts who can assess technical issues for the town:

(Groveman) “You can’t effectively prohibit service. But if you could prove either that that tower … that facility is not necessary to have effective service — which is where the expert comes in. Or if you could prove that – not that the facility is not allowed in your town – it’s just they didn’t meet the reasonable criteria in town that you set out ¿. You could deny it on that basis¿.”

(Dillon) But Groveman says many towns don’t have tower ordinances. The Vermont League has drafted a model regulation, and many towns are rushing to get something on the books.

Vermont’s pristine landscape is essential for the tourism industry. But Groveman wonders if the state will someday look more like New York and southern New England, where the towers are far more common:

(Groveman) “And I think in Vermont, once again, we cherish our landscape and the beauty. We have a billboard law, we have protections in place to protect that. And the towns almost uniformly are concerned about what their towns are going to look like if every ridge has a tower on it.”

(Dillon) Back at the League’s meeting in Montpelier, officials talk about working together to look at the tower issues across town borders.

Berlin Planning Commissioner Stephen Green says it’s important for towns to hire experts to evaluate tower companies’ claims:

(Green) “It may be a question of what you’re being asked to do is to perform the biggest, ugliest, cheapest tower possible, that duplicates coverage, that could easily be made by the addition of another antenna on an existing tower¿.”

(Dillon) The town officials left the meeting a little less overwhelmed. They had made some contacts. And they plan to ask regional planning commissions for help with a broader approach to controlling tower development.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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