Cell tower talk gets mixed responses

Chris Fisher of Cuddy & Feder, the law firm representing Homeland Towers’ application, discusses the proposed cell tower in Ridgefield. —Steve Coulter photo

Chris Fisher of Cuddy & Feder, the law firm representing Homeland Towers’ application, discusses the proposed cell tower in Ridgefield. —Steve Coulter photo

Visibility, appearance and location were all concerns raised at a public information session last Saturday for a proposed cell tower that will overlook the Titicus River Valley.

A snowstorm didn’t keep a dozen or so residents from attending the meeting, which doubled as a question-and-answer session — not a public hearing.

“Do we get any guarantee that it won’t become a 180-foot pole or potentially even higher?” asked a resident about the proposed 150-foot tower off Ledges Road that will show anywhere from 20 to 50 feet above the tree line in several locations, including Barlow Mountain Elementary School, Ridgefield High School and Seth Low Pierrepont State Park.

Chris Fisher, the attorney representing Danbury-based Homeland Towers, which is partnering with AT&T on the project, replied that the state’s siting council has increased tower height during its review sessions in the past, but added that his applicant had no intention of making the pole any higher than the 150 feet that was proposed in the technical reported submitted to the town on Nov. 4.

• PowerPoint presentation from the meeting is available; click here.

 “Going higher won’t get us anywhere,” he said. “But the lower we go in height, the less signal coverage that will be provided in the area, and that’s why we’re proposing a 150-foot pole, because it does the job and isn’t too much of an eyesore —there’s a balance component to it.”

He added that the tower would be made available for other non-AT&T carriers, who would use the lower part of the pole.

“Have you ever increased the height of one of your towers?” another townsperson asked Manny Vicente, the owner and president of Homeland Towers.

“We have 20 towers and we’ve never increased the height of a tower,” Mr. Vicente said.

One of the conceptual decisions open for discussion during the meeting was whether the pole should be constructed as a “monopine” — an antenna designed to look like an evergreen.

“We want to let the people of the town have as much input as possible on the look of the tower,” Mr. Vicente said. “If it is a monopine there will be five feet of branches at the top that will make any antennas virtually invisible.”

He said the clearest views of the tower would be on Hobby Drive, which were shown during a PowerPoint presentation.

“Any of the places you’re going to see the pole, it won’t make much of a difference,” Mr. Fisher said of the height. “Any lower would really negatively impact the potential coverage — 150 feet is a very effective tower.”

Dick Aarons, the town’s emergency management deputy, addressed any problems the small crowd had with the site location.

“Is this the only site possible for emergency services?” one member of the room asked.

Mr. Aarons replied that several members of the emergency management program, which includes some members of the Fire Department and other town safety departments, did more than 20 site surveys in town and concluded that the intended location was the “key site” for a possible cell phone tower.

“It’s a geographically perfect site,” he said.

He said an alternative presented by the state for increasing emergency communication is the placement of a temporary cell site called a COW — cell on wheels.

“The state can’t provide you with a COW without a permanent tower structure in place,” he said, echoing Mr. Fisher’s comment earlier in the meeting that with no options, “a new tower becomes the solution.”

Mr. Aarons said that 22 families were isolated during severe storms last winter and “physically couldn’t step out of their homes.”

He added that the emergency communication equipment the town has is 20 years behind and in “desperate need of an update.”

“What’s maintainable in the future? That’s what we’re really looking for here,” he said.

Fire Chief Heather Burford said there had been a dramatic shift in how 911 calls were received, with most coming in via cell phone.

“That’s only going to increase as we continue to rely more and more on cell coverage,” she said. “This is why we have to act quickly on getting something done.”

Would there be emergency power for the transmitters?

Mr. Fisher said other carriers would be able to deploy mobile emergency generators to the site in case of an emergency, but most power problems could be handled off-site.

“All carriers on the tower will have a battery backup, which will have limited capacity during a long-term power outage but will be more than sufficient in normal instances of power loss,” he said.

He added that AT&T would have a diesel generator on site that could handle power for two to four days.

Some members of the crowd wanted to know about the timeline for the pole’s installation, if it gets approved by the state’s siting council as well as the townspeople.

Mr. Fisher said “best case scenario for operation” would be late 2014 at the earliest.

“We’ve had projects that have taken years to construct for different reasons,” he said, citing a recent situation in Sherman. “There’s a possibility the application will be met with opposition from outside parties that will enter into the proceeding with a lawyer and look to stall any progress.”

He added that the town will send its comments and criticisms to the applicant by the end of January, and from there, the application will be filed with the state’s siting council.

Sometime in the late spring — “around April or May” — there will be a public hearing scheduled, probably at a school in town, according to Mr. Fisher.

“We’re then looking at June or July until we get the state’s approval and then two or three more months to get various building permits and other approvals,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to get to the point of construction.”

Although most of the questions were posed with a negative, non-approving tone, one speaker gave positive feedback to Mr. Vicente and Harry Carry, the director for external affairs at AT&T.

“This tower can’t come fast enough,” he said. “I know it comes at a cost because we’ll see it, but that’s nothing compared to the possibility of saving lives.”

Only a dozen or so residents turned out for the hearing in the snow.

“It’s unfortunate the weather didn’t comply with the meeting date or time, but the presentation will be available for those who are interested very soon,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

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