Opponents urge rejection of Westport cell tower

Zoners call for new balloon test, independent expert

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 4/8/21

Another debate, this one over three hours long, over a proposed AT&T …

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Opponents urge rejection of Westport cell tower

Zoners call for new balloon test, independent expert

Posted

WESTPORT — Aother debate, this one over three hours long, over a proposed AT&T cell tower in south Westport produced no decision on March 31, just a resolve by the Zoning Board of Appeals to continue the hearing to May 12.

By then, board members agreed that they want the applicant to stage a new balloon test, this time with others watching, to give people a visual idea of the tower’s 150-foot height, and what it might look like from various locations.

They also want to hire an independent engineer, at the applicant’s expense, to review claims made about the tower’s need, its safety, and whether this really is the only location that would provide the needed cell coverage.

The proposal calls for placing the AT&T monopole tower on property owned by Brian J. Giblin Jr., at 67 Masquesatch Road, which also abuts Drift Road immediately east of Route 88. The tower would hold a minimum of 12 panel antennas.

Brian Corey Jr., attorney for the applicants, as he did when the plane was first discussed in February, said the pole location would be in a residential/agricultural zone some 300 feet from the nearest home. It would be a “stealth monopole that will have the attributes of a pine tree.”

Mr. Corey said that part of town suffers from subpar cellular reception and needs a tower of this size to close a coverage gap that he said starts a mile up Route 88 and includes all of Westport Point and south to Horseneck Beach, Cherry & Webb Lane and west to River Road.

And one by one he discounted locations that opponents offered as alternatives — from the flagpole at Tripp’s Boat Yard that presently holds a T-Mobile antenna, to the steeple of United Methodist Church, and a property about a mile north on Route 88 owned by Cindy Scheller.

The Tripp tower, at 60 feet tall, stands much lower than the proposed tower, Mr. Corey said, and “would provide no meaningful coverage improvement. And the next closest tower is 2.72 miles north of the 67 Masquesatch Road location … There is no other site available that meets the requirements.”

And he said that signal problems tend to worsen in the summer when over 30,000 people flock to the area and place added demand on limited service. “In this case, its is quite evident that there is no reliable coverage. As usage increases,” there will be slower data transfer and more dropped calls.

Board Chairman Roger Menard questioned maps presented by the applicant that showed large coverage gaps in the south Westport area.

“I went on  AT&T’s website and it shows 100 percent … What it looks like is when AT&T wants to sell you a plan they have a map that shows 100 percent coverage and when you want to put a tower in you show how bad it is.”

He said he and his wife took a drive around the area with their AT&T phones.

“The Point section, you are absolutely correct that they have very poor service,” and along Cherry & Webb as well, Mr. Menard said. But along Horseneck and along Drift Road they never lost service.

Mr. Corey replied that service often continues despite weak signal strength because the phone goes into roaming mode and picks up service from another provider.

“You’re saying that, based on AT&T’s analysis, this is the optimum site,” Mr. Menard said. “Well optimum is nice, but putting it somewhere else could (still) provide significant benefit.”

“Other areas are not available,” Mr. Corey said, adding that “you are talking about a very minor sight line. The monopole that is being offered is designed to disappear in the local environment.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mr. Menard replied. “This is 50 feet at least above all of the other trees. This is going to stick out.”

“That is your opinion,” Mr. Corey said.

“You went on at length,” Mr. Menard continued, “about the benefits of 5G over 4G, that you can download movies 20 times faster. That certainly, in my opinion, is not a reason for asking for a variance.” He added that he is concerned, however, about safety in areas with weak service.

Board member Raymond Elias said he had talked to the police and fire chiefs about claims that the tower would enhance public safety.

“Neither one wanted to say if they were for or against (the tower) — I don’t blame them.” But “they don’t need the system, they have their own and it works well. They have systems in place in town that they don’t have to pay for.”

Mr. Elias added that, “I think the town would benefit from having better coverage.”

Board member Constance Gee asked whether a couple of shorter poles might not do the job as well as one 150-footer.

They would not, Mr. Corey said.

Responding to comments from the previous meeting, Mr. Corey repeated that, in the “unlikely event” that the pole failed in a storm, it is designed to fall flat within a 25-foot radius. He said such poles “have withstood storms in excess of (Hurricane) Sandy.

After much back and forth about lines of sight, tree heights and signal strength, board member Gerald Coutinho said that board members need some expert guidance.

“It is my intention to suggest that the board select its own engineer at the expense of the applicant. I want to see a balloon test with our knowledge ahead of time … not a photoshopped thing of a pine tree sticking above the horizon.”

Mr. Corey said his client has already said that he would be willing to hold a new balloon test and that he will discuss the hiring an independent engineer.

 

Residents voice opposition

Both live at the meeting and in e-mails sent beforehand, almost all residents who spoke urged that the board reject the application.

“I am totally against rezoning the land, said Valerie Turner. She said her family loves to come visit them in what they call God’s country. “This is not commercial land. This company is based out of Atlanta which emphasizes their degree of separation from understanding Westport. Most of the people in this community do not want this tower. “

She added that people in this part of town who have T-Mobile and Verizon “have fine coverage. These carriers were able to provide this service by putting in stealth towers in keeping with our town.”

Buzz Brownlee of Masquatach Road contacted the remote meeting to say that a few years ago a microburst storm cut through the precise area where the tower is proposed, knocking town trees. He said a tower collapse caused by such a storm might cut off the area and even Route 88.

David Cole urged that the developer “take a serious look at the Scheller property” further up Route 88. “It is 100 feet higher” and is not blocked by hills or trees. And he questioned photos shown by the applicant. “They picked sites … that clearly precluded seeing” where where the towers might be. It’s “a disingenuous report.”

Mr. Corey replied that pictures Mr. Cole had presented “are not to scale and not accurate.”

Cindy Scheller, who owns the property to which Mr. Cole referred, said she has never been approached by AT&T. “They have clearly invested time and money in this site and they don’t want to change it. It isn’t that there aren’t alternatives.”

“My client has never contacted Mrs. Scheller because the site is not appropriate,” Mr. Corey said.

Betty Slade said the church steeple was once much taller and the applicant should look into the possibility to restoring it to its original height — which might benefit both the AT&T project and the church. “Talk to the church people about it. It’s a very good location.”

Speaking of the illustrations and balloon tests presented by the applicant, Phil Adams said, “I almost feel like my intelligence is being insulted here. I disagree that he has given us a fair picture of the consequences … They are trying to ram it through.”

Garrett Stuck said, “The height of the tower is not dictated by the needs of AT&T. It is dictated by the need of being able to rent nine other transmitters to other cell phone companies … we’re talking about a tower that’s tall enough that it can hold 12 antennas and as many as four different cell companies.

Mr. Corey replied that the town bylaw requires that any tower be able to handle multiple carriers as a way to limit the number of towers in Westport.

Neighbor Marc Chardon said he agrees with the height concerns but has a couple of other worries as well.

“I don’t think that anybody has spent any time describing the 55-foot long chain link fence with three rows of concertina wire on the top that everybody will be driving by every day.”

Also not discussed has been the storage of diesel fuel for the generator next to sensitive wetlands — while we are required to keep track of where we keep our cows.

 

Emails call for denial

“Why would we desecrate our landscape and our history with an industrial-sized structure,” asked Paul Schmid.  Certainly “there are more creative ways. Let’s work on smart options rather than take the cheap and easy way.”

Maurice May of Westport Point was the lone resident e-mailer to voice support for the proposal.

“I believe the (tower) will in no way have any adverse impact on the Westport Point Historical District. We desperately need better cell phone service at Westport Point” where he said he gets one bar at best with AT&T. 

Rud Lawrence, chairman of the Westport Historical Commission, said the commission has determined that the tower “would significantly intrude into and mar the historic fabric that the Westport Historical Commission has been working to preserve.”

Christopher Capone, the town conservation agent, said Mr. Corey erred when he said land to the north of the site has agricultural preservation restriction status and also when he said the property does not drain to the Westport River.

“I found the presentation to be misleading,” said Phil Adams. The flagpole tower at Tripp’s provides good T-Mobile service. Why do we need a tower 3 1/2 times as tall as a telephone pole.” And might not the Shy Brothers property be a good alternative?

The reason for the height is to increase revenue, wrote Rick Small.”We want to keep Westport what it is, not what corporate may want it to be.”

Nils Bruzelius said “I am familiar with monopoles disguised as trees in other locations … they are comically ugly.” This one would be 11 stories tall, “a visual blight.”

Planning Board member Robert Daylor said “I was struck by the number of assertions without any proof, as well as statements that were clearly incorrect.

“The applicant needs to be more creative if they are going to claim some overriding federal authority. They need to look at alternatives.”

 

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