A Towering Issue – How Do Towns Plan For it? Part 3

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

This is the third and concluding article of my series about cell towers (see the April 30th and May 14th Villager issues for the first two articles). As promised, I will talk about alternative options to cell towers.

In order to get the benefits of wireless communications (who does not like their cell phone or wi-fi device?), the infrastructure must be built somewhere so that they can be used locally. There are times that a single, tall cell tower sitting on a hill or a high ridge can provide the best signal coverage for a broad geographic area. This has been the traditional and effective way to provide such services. If you place enough cell towers in northeastern CT, then comprehensive coverage is able to be provided to everyone who lives, works or travels here. This makes sense. The down side of this approach is that the cell towers dot the horizon and rise up from the ground level, especially when they are built on the high points of the landscape. This is not to say that cell towers are bad. Rather, if alternative, less intrusive means to achieve the same benefits exist, then could they be used? Yes.

Depending upon the circumstances of your town and the preferences of your community, there are creative and reliable ways to provide wireless communications. In various parts of the country, some as close by as the town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard and others as far away as California, this is being looked into or has been accomplished.

Local zoning regulations can detail siting preferences, such as the use of existing towers, the improvement of older towers, the placement of antennas inside tall structures so that they are not seen or the use of multiple small towers that hide behind the tree lines. Regulations can also describe construction preferences, such as a monopole instead of a lattice structure, or stealth designs that make the tower look like a farm silo, water tower or flag pole. Although these options should be researched for each cell tower proposal, they may not be feasible in each and every circumstance. There may not be any existing towers in a certain area in which coverage is needed. There may not be tall enough buildings in which to house a large antenna set up. There may be visually unpleasing consequences of disguising a tower as a silo in that it could create a too tall and bulky structure that looks out of place. But, if one does not look into what other options are possible, then time and time again cell towers will be what are reflexively built. Alternative options can achieve the balance between the need for wireless communications services in our towns and the desire not to see towers.

One alternative option is to use distributed array systems (DAS). This concept uses a number of smaller antennas to replace a single large antenna. These smaller antennas do not have to be towers themselves. The potential advantage of this design is that parts of our towns that require large towers sitting on high points to provide meaningful coverage can be serviced by these distributed arrays. These includes valleys and other low points, open spaces, commercial districts or shopping centers, manufacturing and industrial zones, residential neighborhoods. A tower does not need to be seen since the arrays can be placed on existing telephone poles or within buildings. Each array unit acts as a node. The combination of these nodes throughout a defined geography becomes the wireless system, connected to a central source. This type of system can be expanded or new systems can be located in a town. The literal beauty of DAS is that it can replace the need for new visible cell towers or complement existing ones, depending upon the circumstances.

The telecommunications companies have an advantage here in Connecticut. Your town can enact or update its zoning regulations regarding wireless communications structures, but the CT Siting Council has the actual final authority over what gets built and how it gets constructed. Although the Siting Council is required to look at the feasibility of alternative approaches to building cell towers, it takes a strong local community effort, heard loud enough by the Siting Council and the telecommunications companies, for such alternative approaches to be taken seriously. Technologies such as DAS may be more expensive to build; perhaps that is why they are not the first thing proposed to be built. But, in the long term, they could cost less as telecommunications companies would have to spend less time and money fighting against local community opposition to cell towers. Common sense approaches can help achieve common ground such that the telecommunications companies learn about and respect the preferences and values of our communities before they submit applications to build cell towers.

Cell towers are just one example of an important issue that your town’s planning and zoning commission may deal with and should be concerned about. We want what cell towers provide us, but we do not want to see them and we do not want to be potentially harmed by their electromagnetic energy. A societal need as basic as communication (necessary for our qualities of life; our public health, safety, and welfare; our educational opportunities; and our local jobs and economies) can be challenging and often times over looked. Practical and forward thinking municipal planning can help turn problems such as these into opportunities, especially as our communities grow.

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