Wireless in Vermont, Part Two

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(Host) Developers have plans to erect scores of telecommunications towers along Vermont’s ridgelines. Under the federal law, cell phone companies have the go-ahead to build the towers in order to bring better cell phone service to the state. Towns have the ability to regulate where the towers go and how they look.

Because of the technology involved, the towers are a new challenge for the volunteers who sit on town planning boards. In the second part of our series “Wireless in Vermont,” Steve Zind looks at two towns that are dealing with the rush to build cell towers.

(Zind) Interstate 89 divides Gaylen Brown’s farm in Brookfield. Brown says when the highway came through in the 1960s, his father tried to stop it:

(Brown) “I guess he did fight against it! Fought like hell. He still fought it till the day he died.”

(Zind) The highway Gaylen Brown’s father fought is now providing Brown with a financial windfall. A disability keeps Brown from farming. When Devon Mobile Communications wanted to lease his land for a cell tower, Brown was all for it. Some of his neighbors didn’t share his enthusiasm. Cell towers don’t make noise. They don’t create traffic. They don’t take up a lot of space. They do elicit a strong response, in part for what they symbolize:

(Fallon) “It’s intervention of bigness. It’s like watching Williston become houses instead of farms. It’s encroachment.”

(Zind) Bonnie Fallon is one of Gaylen Brown’s neighbors. She doesn’t like the towers in general, but she’s happy with the ultimate design of the Brookfield tower. Instead of a 180-foot steel structure proposed by Devon, there will be an 85-foot wooden pole. It will be hard to spot against a line of taller trees behind it.

The changes were made under the Brookfield cell tower ordinance. It limits the tower’s height, appearance and environmental impact. Through a series of public hearings with company officials, town planners and citizens came up with a design they could all live with. Fallon and neighbor Bob Decker say the tower ordinance passed its first test with flying colors:

(Decker) “I’m totally delighted that Brookfield anticipated the tower problem and had an ordinance in effect¿”
(Fallon) “Everybody gets to stand up and have his day, you know. It worked! We got the tower sized down.”

(Zind) Jeff Kimmel chairs the Brookfield Board of Adjustment. Kimmel says dealing with cell towers requires a level of technical expertise that most local planning boards don’t have:

(Kimmel) “There’s a very steep learning curve as we found, even with the ordinance in place, on the technical issues behind these towers.”

(Zind) Kimmel says Vermont towns up and down the interstate are going to have to deal with cell towers. Many are rushing to adopt ordinances similar to Brookfield’s. But a town doesn’t need to have a cell tower bylaw to review tower applications.

(Sound from hearing in Bethel) “Our minutes are no longer minutes. They’re hours. We have 300 pages of minutes here of testimony on this¿”

(Zind) Bethel is just south of Brookfield on I- 89. The town’s Development Review Board has held three hearings on an application from ATC Realty, another cell tower developer. At the most recent hearing, residents questioned an ATC representative:

(Bethel resident) “I wonder if you can give me in layman’s terms a little bit more idea what the purpose of this tower is?
(ATC Representative) “To put it crudely, it’s to make money. Now Vermont doesn’t have the tower infrastructure. That’s why this is coming at this late date.”

(Zind) ATC wants to build a 150-foot tower on top of a ridge along the interstate. Bethel doesn’t have a tower ordinance. That could make it difficult to dictate what the tower looks like and where it goes. Craig Wortman is head of the town Planning Board. Wortman says it’s hard to apply existing regulations to towers:

(Wortman) “I don’t think there’s anything specific about towers in the zoning regulations and the subdivision regulations. About all they can go by is the town plan and it’s very general.”

(Zind) Wortman says his Board will work to develop a tower ordinance over the next few months. He says Bethel was taken by surprise by the ATC application, but it’s clear to him cell towers are not going away. In fact, the rush to build towers in Vermont is just beginning. Towns are going to have to balance the concerns of local citizens with federal law designed to bring cellular service to the state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) Tomorrow in our series, “Wireless in Vermont,” VPR’s Bob Kinzel looks into public safety concerns over drivers who use cell phones.

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