A Towering Issue – How Do Towns Plan For it? Part 1

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

There are many benefits from wireless technology. We use our cell phones in our cars (hands free, of course) or walking around. When we call for police, fire or medical help, adequate telecommunications coverage is vital. Your town’s public works, schools and buses, farms, businesses, and tourism use such resources to stay in communication.

Yet, when there is talk of building a cell tower, one of the first things that you may think of is “not in my backyard”. Do you want a cell tower near where you live? Do you want to see one in the distance? What are the heath concerns? What will happen to your home’s property value? These are all readily understandable, visceral concerns.

So, how do our towns balance the benefits of telecommunications capabilities/opportunities with the need to preserve rural landscapes/viewscapes, maintain public health, protect people’s individual property rights, and address community concerns? The devil is in the details.

First, people are not opposed to having telecommunications coverage in their towns. How many times have we cursed our cell phones when we hit a weak or dead signal spot? Our society is intricately dependent upon them (sometimes it is a blessing and sometimes it is a curse, as I know from having my Blackberry and my medical pager). While the federal Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996 allows states and municipalities to regulate cell towers, they cannot ban or effectively prohibit them. Thus, the crux of the debate about cell towers is where in our towns to place them and when alternative technologies are to be used. This debate is political and scientific, but always personal on the local level where people are faced with a cell tower proposal in their neck of the woods.

Second, here in Connecticut, unlike in many other states, there is a Siting Council that has state-wide jurisdiction over telecommunications facilities. This may be seen as a means to streamline and standardize the process of reviewing, debating, and deciding telecommunications issues. It can also be viewed as usurping local decision making and control over what is constructed in a community – it furthers limits your local town government (and by extension you). Although state legislation requires the Siting Council to listen to the input of town government and to note a town’s regulations and ordinances, it is ultimately up to the nine-person Siting Council to make the decisions about telecommunications matters. Not one member of the Siting Council lives in Northeast Connecticut, while all of us do.

Third, the TCA had the objective to remove regulatory barriers so as to open up (deregulate) the communications market to more business opportunities. Although this effort to promote competition and improve access may be laudable, two provisions of the legislation are concerning: 1.) pre-empting local rules as to what can and cannot be built in communities, and how they are to be built, and 2.) limiting discussion about the potential health effects of radio frequencies (a form of electromagnetic radiation).

This is not to say upfront that the federal and state telecommunications approval processes are unfair or that the agencies involved are not doing a good job. Rather, Planning and Zoning Commissions, either elected by you and the people in your town or appointed by your local elected officials, are the best means to make local decisions about what happens regarding local land use activities. The Siting Council does come to a municipality once during the formal telecommunications hearing proceedings. The public can talk for a few minutes per person or seek formal intervenor status to be more involved in the process. But, as we all know, there is no replacement for being able to get to your local town hall any time you want rather than drive to the Siting Council in New Britain if you cannot make the one Siting Council public hearing in your town. After all , if it is something that is to directly affect your community, then shouldn’t you have a strong say in what happens, multiple opportunities to have your voice heard, and the ability to see firsthand how the decisions are made?

By the time a cell tower application is submitted to the Siting Council, state law requires that a decision be made within 180 days (this can be extended another 180 days if the applicant agrees). The municipality directly affected by the application has 60 days of notice before the application is filed. During this time, the town can conduct its own hearings and submit advice to the Siting Council. Sixty days is not much time if a town is not otherwise prepared, unlike a telecommunications company which has conducted a lot of field work and technical research before submitting its application. However, it is during this critical time before an application is submitted that our towns can work proactively, collaboratively and comprehensively in the process. For example, Woodstock’s Municipal Telecommunications Task Force and its Planning and Zoning Commission have been doing just that these past several years. Other towns in Connecticut are looking to do likewise.

If growth in our towns is inevitable, then it is important for us to guide that growth to meet the individual and unique needs of our communities (town wide and neighborhood focused), as opposed to just reacting to various issues without a vision for the future. Your Planning and Zoning Commission regulates local land use activities in your town. Should cell towers, being land use activities, be any different?

In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about what towns can do about telecommunications issues and what technologies can be used additive/alternative to cell towers to provide us and our local economies the telecommunications services we need and want.

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