A Towering Issue – How Do Towns Plan For it? Part 2

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

In the first part of my Villager article series (April 30th, 2010), I outlined some of the benefits and challenges presented by cell towers. I cited the inevitability of more telecommunications facilities being built or updated in order to keep pace with the needs and wants of our technology-driven society. In this second part, let us focus on what your town can do regarding all of this.

Our towns need to plan for how best to incorporate telecommunications into our communities. Rather than reacting to a cell tower application (which provides limited time for a full research and response effort), your town can be proactive and prepare itself. How to do this can vary from town to town, but there are some basic tenets to follow.

Establishing a telecommunications task force is a good start. Woodstock and other towns across Connecticut have done this. It will help determine your town’s current local telecommunications coverage. It will help create an understanding of where existing cell towers are located in your town, in surrounding areas, and even over the border in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It will help assess what new technologies and load capacities they can handle, and if they can jointly be used by several service providers. More than one company may provide service to your community, so there may be several different answers to each question.

The Connecticut Siting Council is mandated to provide each municipality with a coverage map (if asked). The telecommunications companies will also provide such (if asked). Close examination of these maps to assess their accuracy is important. We all know of strong, weak, and dead cell phone zones in our towns. The real life realities on the ground may not jive with the coverage maps the companies and the Siting Council are using. Although individual towns may not be able to afford the expertise required to determine super-accurate coverage maps, the telecommunications companies can. If discussed with them, then they may well investigate further their coverage maps. This provides them with valuable customer feedback and allows your town to match cell towers to where coverage is actually needed. It also helps determine if alternative technologies would be suitable.

Planning also makes it clear that your town is actively involved in the process. Because telecommunications issues are part of the personal, professional, governmental, educational, recreational, and economic concerns of your community, they should be part of your town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), which is used to plan for future growth and development. The state puts statutory importance on the POCD. Furthermore, Northeast Connecticut has been designated as a state Heritage Area. This is an endorsement by state government to find ways to protect and to conserve the unique rural and historic features of the Quiet Corner - state agencies, like the Siting Council, need to give proper special consideration of such in their planning and development decisions.

Our towns should find out what each other is doing in this issue. This can not only save time, but can provide meaningful information about the experiences and ideas of others. It also can open doors for regional efforts here in the Quiet Corner by supplementing and enhancing individual town efforts. There is strength in numbers.

Our towns should work proactively with the telecommunications companies. This is a strong way to impress upon these companies what your community and you are thinking. You may be pleasantly surprised. These companies do value customer service and customer relations - leverage points useful up front in the cell tower process before a formal application is submitted to the Siting Council (and the clock starts ticking) and when there is more flexibility in what to do and more time during which to do it. For example, in Woodstock, Verizon Wireless has taken the extra time to come to town several times, providing updates about possible cell tower applications, soliciting public input, learning more about town regulations, and providing some ideas about what the company may do in the future in this area. I am not suggesting that one should approach this idealistically or naïvely (telecommunications is after all “big business”), but being proactive in a practical, common sense manner can yield results and opportunities. Although the Siting Council makes the final telecommunications determinations, the companies do want to avoid protracted and boisterous public opposition to a cell tower application. From a business point of view, such can make for unhappy customers, the loss of future ones, and the expenditure of lots of extra time and money.

Our towns should maintain up to date telecommunications zoning regulations. Just because the Siting Council has taken local jurisdiction on this issue away from the municipalities does not mean that our communities should stop standing up for what we want and do not want regarding how telecommunications infrastructure is to be built in our towns. Federal law prohibits municipalities from preventing cell towers and the like, but the law does not prevent towns from being actively involved in determining where they will go and how they will look. If your community invests itself in its POCD, then it needs to have zoning regulations that provide the means of achieving its POCD’s goals. Zoning regulations are the hands-on tools used by your town to directly achieve those goals, to fairly regulate land use activities, and to appropriately enforce them. Having strong regulations about telecommunication facilities can carry influence with the telecommunication companies and the Siting Council.

Our towns should determine the specifics and the preferences about what types of cell towers, in what locations, of what designs and camouflage, and of what alternative technologies are suitable in and for our communities. In the third part of my article series, I’ll discuss further with you this interesting aspect of the telecommunications issue affecting you and all of us.

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