A majority of West Tisbury residents at a packed public meeting on Wednesday spoke against a plan from American Tower Corporation to build a distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve cell phone coverage in the three up-Island towns.
Many who attended the meeting cited concerns about safety, questioning whether radio frequency from the towers would pose a danger to humans, while others said they worried a series of new utility poles needed for the system would ruin scenic vistas and infringe on people’s property.
Still others said the town already had adequate cell phone coverage, and questioned whether the system was necessary, at least in West Tisbury.
“It seems we already have cell phone coverage, just how much do we need? It’s like ice cream, do we really need all these flavors?” said Field View resident David Finkelstein. “I think West Tisbury is a common sense town; if there are questions about safety, and little to gain, why are we bothering with this? It’s absolutely idiotic.”
The town last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Aquinnah and Chilmark to jointly build a new DAS system; the plan has attracted a growing number of critics.
At a public hearing in April with American Tower, residents from all three towns raised concerns about aesthetics, finances and health. The original plan called for building 25 nodes, each about 18 inches in diameter and approximately 40 feet in height, with antennas and equipment boxes attached to each pole.
But after negative reaction to that plan, American Tower went back to the drawing board. The plan now calls for 47 nodes to be built on poles around 12 inches in diameter, 18 of which would be located in West Tisbury. Each of the poles would be equipped with a slim whip antenna about two inches in diameter.
West Tisbury resident Julia Sierputowski on Wednesday cited a California town that stopped a cell phone tower from being built because of concerns about aesthetics, property values and safety. This flies in the face of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which guarantees citizens’ rights to quality cell service while limiting the grounds on which towns and citizens may challenge the construction of cell phone towers.
But Ms. Sierputowski said there have been successful legal challenges to the telecommunications act.
“What do you say to the mother of a child whose bus stop is directly underneath one of these [nodes] that is buzzing and humming . . . the town has a right to say no,” she said.
But American Tower representative Alexander P. Gamota, who calmly answered questions from the hot seat despite some often emotional and confrontational moments, said there is no evidence that DAS systems pose any health risk. He said the radio frequency emitted from each antennae falls well under state and federal safety guidelines.
“You could put 100 nodes in one location, and it would still be under the state and federal safety threshold. This is very low power; you could stand at the bottom of one of these poles and the frequency would still be less than someone talking on a cell phone,” he said, adding:
“Remember we are a publicly traded company; we are not trying to get into trouble by not meeting [safety] standards.”
Mr. Gamota noted his company did not come to the Island uninvited, but had responded to a request for proposals from a committee made up of representatives of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah. He said his company prefers to have all three towns enter in the deal, but if West Tisbury drops out he said the plan can still move forward with the remaining two towns.
“You have decisions to make. If this isn’t for West Tisbury, then it’s not for West Tisbury,” he said.
Mr. Gamota said opting out of the DAS agreement will not prevent cell carriers from building antenna systems or cell towers in the future. “It’s just one of those things that doesn’t go away necessarily,” he said.
And he said this may be the only opportunity for the town to receive revenue from such a deal. His company has offered to pay the town a flat fee of $50,000 and would allow it to participate in revenue sharing after a deal is struck with a cell phone provider.
“It’s a generous offer. It’s one most other towns don’t get,” he said.
And while most spoke against the proposal, the opposition was not unanimous.
During a call for a show of hands from people who thought the town already had adequate cell coverage, the crowd of about 100 split down the middle. A handful of people said they did not have a cell phone.
Capawock Road resident Les Cutler said he understands why people oppose the plan, but he called the safety issue a red herring. “If we don’t want it because we don’t need it, fine. If we don’t want it because we don’t like it, fine . . . but it’s misleading and unfair to be a source of inaccurate health information,” Mr. Cutler said.
Others said there was not enough information for the public to make an informed decision. Samantha Look suggested the company provide detailed information on current cell phone coverage, and whether the expanded coverage will overlap what already exists.
Chilmark resident Wendy Wells said improved cell coverage would enhance safety for residents and emergency personnel. “Someone used the example of, what if my child? But you can also ask what if your child flew over the handlebars and was hurt. Wouldn’t you want to know you could use your phone to call 911 for help?” she said.
The meeting went on for two and a half hours before it was adjourned. The issue will be picked up again during a meeting of the three up-Island towns on June 22 at 6 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center.