AT&T’s Tower Approval Process Creates Confusion, Raises Residents’ Concerns

by Doug McClure
photo by Doug McClure | The Bridgman Hill tower, also known as the Rinker Tower, was completed in December 2011 after seven years of divisiveness and what the owner Karl Rinker told the Gazette at the time he estimated as $50,000 in legal fees. In 2004, Rinker applied for a variance due to the tower’s 180-foot height and “was met with resistance every step on the way. The tower had to go through the state Environmental Court twice, once for zoning purposes and once for Act 250. Both times opponents took the case to the Supreme Court,” the Gazette reported at the time.

HARDWICK – At the most recent emergency planning commission meeting and several of the past select board meetings, the proposed AT&T tower at 283 Cooper Brook Drive on Buffalo Mountain has drawn the ire of some residents for a variety of reasons. AT&T originally filed a Certificate for Public Good (CPG) on October 21 with the Public Utility Commission (PUC). At the most recent select board meeting, AT&T agreed to petition the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to extend the request for comment on that CPG until January 13. The Public Service Commission filed a notice with the PUC agreeing to that extension. In its filing, AT&T said that “The Agency of Natural Resources and Natural Resources Board are also in favor of extending the expiration date of the comment period.”

AT&T also agreed to a second balloon test this Saturday after residents stated that the first test was not widely publicized. The Town of Hardwick detailed this test on its website: “The balloon will be flown to a height of 184’ feet and will be photographed from public areas in Town, which will then be used to generate photographic simulations of the Facility from various vantage points within two miles of the Site. Due to the variable weather conditions in Vermont that can affect the balloon test, a back-up date is tentatively scheduled on Sunday, December 6, 2020 from 9:00am–1:00pm.” Is is unclear whether, as some residents wanted, this new balloon will be brightly colored despite the fact the tower itself is described in preliminary design documents as being matte gray.

With the comment period now extended, the Gazette has summarized the concerns that some residents have expressed.

Aesthetics

Residents have raised concerns over the aesthetic impact of a tower. Particularly, Lenore and Wayne Renaud said in a letter to the PUC that AT&T’s work has been “woefully deficient regarding the aesthetic analysis.” In that letter, the Renauds said “Buffalo Mountain is in our town logo, on postcards, Wikipedia, book covers, you get the picture. It’s the iconic backdrop of this little town that has fought so hard to thrive.”

The Renauds have filed two motions with the PUC, one requesting a hearing and a motion to intervene based on aesthetic grounds stating “It would be shocking and offensive to place the cell tower in that location” and expressing concern that the tower will also impact property values and contravenes the Hardwick Town Plan.

At 184′ tall, the proposed tower would likely require a variance from the town and exceeds one other allowance by four feet. AT&T has stated that the majority of the height is blocked by tree coverage and that height is required for the tower to meet coverage goals.

The Hardwick Town Plan specifically identified Buffalo Mountain as one of several areas “central to Hardwick’s scenic offerings.” A town plan is not a statutory document, but instead serves to create guidelines to help communities plan for their future methodically. Town plans are considered in state reviews such as those for Act 250 and Certificates for Public Good.

The Town Plan specifically states that “Telecommunications towers and other large obvious structures should be carefully sited to minimize impacts on scenic resources.”

In its Certification of Advance Notice filed with the PUC, AT&T said “The Facility will not unreasonably interfere with views from VT Route 14. The Tower will be visible along VT Route 14 only for short intervals and from a distance” and stated the tower “will not have an undue adverse aesthetic effect for purposes of Section 248a and the Bylaws. While the tower will be visible from multiple locations due to height … the lower portions of the tower are screened by surrounding vegetation, and a number of views will be limited in duration from the traveling public. AT&T has analyzed and concluded that the height of the Tower cannot be reduced without compromising the optimal coverage objective for its customers and FirstNet subscribers. In terms of mitigation, AT&T will consider possible colors for painting the Tower and the associated antennas and tower-mounted equipment, and or alternative designs.” Further noted was “no lighting is proposed or required by FAA regulations for the Tower.”

Process

Other residents filed public comments with the PUC that focused on the process, noting COVID did not help make things smoother. Resident Rose Friedman said she was “disturbed by the process regarding a proposed telecommunications tower in my town” and felt that while the select board perceived the project as “on hold” due to concerns over access on Buffalo Mountain and AT&T being able to meet Hardwick Electric’s requirements, AT&T was continuing its process in the background.” She said that when contacting the PUC, some were told on November 24 that they had just an hour to make a public comment. “I can’t believe that this is really how the process is supposed to work, with citizens effectively prevented from providing input about an important issue facing their town.”

Resident Suzanna Jones said in her public comment “The public is only now becoming aware that this is moving along despite town officials believing it to be ‘on hold’, as they believed it to be because of the unresolved issues about the use of the town-owned Trail and whether the Hardwick Electric Department’s standards can be met. The issues raised by the project have never been discussed by the Planning Commission or the Select Board or the townspeople. Most people in town who I have talked to think the project is either on hold or not happening.”

Jones said that it was also unclear, based on what she had heard, whether AT&T had obtained all the legally required easements before filing its CPG. She said “If the Petition is found deficient because of these unresolved issues, should the Petition be dismissed? Should AT&T be required to re-file its Petition only if and when it can confirm to the PUC that Hardwick Electric Department has agreed that they can get power to the steep ledgy site and the town has granted permission to use and upgrade the trail to access the tower?”

Buffalo Mountain Road

One point of confusion is the ambiguously phrased “proposed road upgrade along Buffalo Mountain Road (Town Approval Pending)” in AT&T’s Certification of Advance Notice. AT&T has said that it intends to bury utility cables under that road. Town Manager Shaun Fielder said that Buffalo Mountain Road is a “legal trail” under Vermont road classifications which means the town does not maintain that road. No plan has been put forth, and no expressed intent has been stated, to reclassify that road as a town-maintained road.

Another point of confusion is that a variously described “logging road” or “access road” is mentioned in multiple cases. Based on the proposed development plans supplied by AT&T, this would seem to only mean improving the road already in place that is on private property, though that is still not entirely clear. Those improvements would happen on private property which is between the landowner and AT&T, but potentially subject to review by the Zoning Board and the Development Review Board.

Environment

At the Planning Commission meeting, the environmental impact both of the tower and the process of building the tower was raised as a concern. Lenore Renaud said that a crane would be necessary and the steep grade presented a challenge that she believed would require a new access road’s construction to solve. She said that heavy equipment and cement trucks would need to make it up to the site.

Resident Judith Ruskin said the tower would impact a wetland. In its Certification of Advanced Notice, AT&T included a report from Marshfield, Massachusetts-based South River Environmental (SRE) that concluded “Based on the current proposed location of the access road for the telecommunication facility, permanent fill of the identified wetland will likely be required.” SRE recommended reconfiguring the access road to the site to avoid crossing the wetland if possible, or at least minimize the amount filled in “to under 3,000 square feet.” SRE noted that if the amount filled in exceeds 5,000 square feet “the project will not be eligible for a general permit and will require an individual permit from the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] which can take up to 6 months to process,” among other concerns.

AT&T further noted “No necessary wildlife habitat is located on the Property, as confirmed as part of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (“NEPA”) review undertaken concurrently with the Section 248a process” and a study found “no state-listed rare species habitat or significant natural communities have been identified within the Project locus.”

Referencing upgrades to Buffalo Mountain Road, AT&T said “The Project is expected to result in 17,535 square feet of permanent earth disturbance, and approximately 77,680 square feet of disturbance in total, including upgrades to Buffalo Mountain Road.”

5G

Some have made the unsupported claim that the tower will be operating 5G antennas. The term “5G” cellular is a generalization because 5G in its current state represents three different ranges of radio frequencies, each with very different capabilities and limitations. The lowest 5G frequency is similar to that used by 4G. Both 4G and 5G are designations for the radio frequencies used to deliver cellular service.

AT&T has made no secret that a key component of the conversion to 5G is the public-private partnership known as FirstNet network AT&T has built with Congressional authority to prioritize cell signal to first responders. In media reports, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and CEO, said as early as 2018 that “to build out this FirstNet capability, this first responder network, we have to go climb every cell tower. Literally, we have to go touch every cell tower over the next couple of years. As we’re touching those cell towers, every single one of them, we have a lot of spectrum in inventory. We will be lighting that spectrum up as we touch each cell tower.”

At an investors’ conference, Stephenson was quoted as saying “We’ll be equipping every single cell site for 5G such that, when 5G is ready to go, when it’s ready for prime time, our turn-up of 5G is a software load, it’s a software upgrade.” If 5G is indeed implemented universally, the radio frequency output of the proposed new tower would not differ from Bridgman Hill’s tower or any other.

AT&T has also confused customers by rolling out something dubbed “5G Evolution” which is not 5G but is instead a 4G service using a variety of technological advances to boost its speed over conventional 4G LTE.

A review of the documents provided by AT&T details the proposed equipment in terms of antennas and frequencies. The documents indicate that the tower will transmit signal on the same bands and frequencies as 4G. No mention is made of any ultra-high-frequency equipment. In addition, in the Certificate of Advance Notice, AT&T explicitly referenced “700MHz” coverage, which is not high-frequency 5G. AT&T and other carriers are, experts agree, rolling out “low-band” 5G’s technological advances on the assumption that low-frequency 5G service will outstrip 4G and not require major infrastructure buildouts that would be cost-prohibitive in rural areas.

Broadband

The Town Plan states that “Broadband access for the internet is available in the villages and some rural locations. Advances to the connectivity technology continue to occur but the rural spaces are still lacking in full coverage.”

AT&T has made no specific claims about the proposed tower’s impact on broadband beyond improving coverage areas. Given that the proposed frequencies proposed are “low-band,” the speed difference would likely be minimal according if the tower’s radios operate at the same frequency as existing 4G service.

Resident Rachel Kane said at the Planning Commission meeting that Kingdom Fiber is being built, therefore eliminating, in her view, that justification for this proposed tower.

Kingdom Fiber is a large-scale, fiber-based service that aims to extend high-speed terrestrial broadband to homes and businesses in 22 NEK towns. The proposed new tower may improve mobile internet service within the limited area its signal would reach.

Coverage

Several residents have noted that they feel cell coverage in Hardwick is good as-is and this tower would do little to improve coverage. AT&T has said this tower will fill in coverage holes in the village.

In coverage maps provided to the select board well before its October 21 filing, AT&T stated that the new tower would provide a significant improvement from Hardwick into the northernmost areas of Woodbury along Route 14 where currently little-to-no-coverage exists, fill in spotty coverage on Hopkins Hill Road, and bring substantial new coverage to Mackville Road and surrounding areas. AT&T also shows a coverage hole currently at the base of Bridgman Hill.

Throughout the process, AT&T has stated that this tower will augment and expand its mandated FirstNet network. AT&T said in its Certificate of Advance Notice that it “is prepared to demonstrate that there are no other existing feasible towers or other support structures in this area of Hardwick / Woodbury / Wolcott upon which to collocate antennas and equipment in order to meet its coverage objectives for FirstNet.”

Response as to how effective the current coverage for FirstNet is has varied. In select board meetings last fall, both Hardwick Police Department Chief Aaron Cochran and Hardwick Fire Chief Tom Fadden said cell phone coverage, even with FirstNet, sometimes proved problematic, which AT&T consultant Jennille Smith attributed at the time potentially due to Bridgman Hill tower being saturated for capacity. Fadden said in October 2019 that “the more towers the better” because the department frequently ended up using cell phones due to spotty radio communications, which the tower could improve. Planning Commission member Michael Haveson, who drives for Hardwick Rescue, said he is a first responder and has had no signal problems. It was suggested at the Planning Commission meeting that first responders be surveyed to get a clearer picture.