Photos: Vicki Thomas
In the photo above, left: the Eversource tower on Tall Pines Drive. Right, the firehouse on Lyons Plain Road.
Despite today’s sophisticated technology, many Weston residents find themselves living in a cell phone dead zone. The frustration of having calls dropped, a signal too weak to reliably download data, and battery depletion while a phone searches for a signal is frequently shared by emergency responders, who struggle to maintain a connection when dispatched on calls.
A partial solution may be found in an AT&T proposal to install cellular equipment by leasing an existing Eversource transmission tower on Tall Pines Drive near White Birch Road. The application is currently before the Connecticut Siting Council. An objection has been filed by at least one neighbor, with support from the Town, which has offered an alternative.
Weston currently has two cell phone towers, but they do not cover the entire community. They are subject to interference from trees, hills, and valleys. Installing additional towers is subject to concerns by nearby residents and those who see them as disrupting the beauty of the area.
In 1998 the Town of Weston put together an overall plan for seamless service, which included a tower that is now in place at the Transfer Station on Godfrey Road. At the time, a recommendation was made to also install a signal repeater at the Fire Department facility on Lyons Plain Road to boost signals and improve the connection for emergency services.
On November 13, Town Administrator Jonathan Luiz sent a letter essentially reviving that idea to the Connecticut Siting Council. The letter shared concerns expressed by a nearby family about how close the proposed AT&T Eversource wireless facility would be to their home and suggested, as an alternative, installing a pole at the firehouse.
The AT&T plan proposes an 18' by 24' fenced gravel compound surrounded by a 9' high fence. In addition, there will be a 20KW diesel fuel backup generator and an 8'x8' walk-in equipment shelter. There will also be a new road and parking lot only a few feet from the neighbor's property line. The neighbor objects that the structures will be visible from their property in all seasons and that noise from the generator, vehicles, and workers will change their living environment and could have a negative impact on their property value.
On November 20, attorneys representing AT&T advised the Siting Council that AT&T engineers have determined that the fire station is located too far north and has a significantly lower elevation, by 100 feet, than the proposed site at Tall Pines Drive.
The Connecticut Siting Council has exclusive jurisdiction over emergency and telecommunications in the state. It is responsible for balancing the need for adequate and reliable public utilities. The Council has a 13-member board that include lawyers and engineers who review petitions for cell towers. Comments on the AT&T tower are currently being reviewed.
If the Council makes a favorable determination on the AT&T proposal, the Town can neither stop it nor insist on an alternative. The courts have consistently ruled that no local zoning or wetlands regulations apply to telecommunications tower facilities and that no land use permits are required.
The good news is that the facility would improve cellular reception for emergency responders and AT&T wireless customers. However, those using other carriers would not benefit. According to Melanie Bachman, Executive Director of the Connecticut Siting Council, the AT&T pole that will be inserted into the current Eversource transmission tower is not designed to provide additional equipment from Verizon, Sprint, or other companies.
First Selectman Chris Spaulding and Mr. Luiz are making a priority of reducing Weston cell phone dead zones. Mr. Luiz said, "Where appropriate, we are actively working to find cell tower locations suitable for the town — first for the safety needs for our first responders and EMS and also for our citizens.”
Finding locations and getting needed approvals is not an easy process, whether on town-owned or private property. Ms. Bachman pointed out that the business desires of cellular carriers are a determining factor. She also said there must be "a willing landlord" and "a meeting of the minds." If that occurs, a petition to the Siting Council would be created.
Dr. Spaulding, Mr. Luiz