Earlier Tower Controversy

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – On June 9, 2004, the Hardwick Gazette reported on a “communications tower permit sought for Bridgman Hill.” According to the story, Barre businessman Karl Rinker wanted to build a 180-foot tower to help his paging business get coverage in Hardwick.

Rinker also noted the potential upsides for emergency services, as the communications tower could help alleviate dead zones in coverage. In a letter to the editor, a resident expressed to the Gazette if the improved coverage could save even one life, it (the tower) would be worth it.

Rinker noted in his application that “A very high percentage of our customer base is either public safety or medical,” and “there will be space available for other two-way radio communications for police, fire, ambulance and commercial stations.”

Then-Zoning Administrator Nancy Kish said at the time she saw no potential violations of bylaw guidelines. Hardwick’s Police Department stated they were “very interested in putting a repeater” on the proposed tower. Tower space was also available for six “cellular type” carriers. Kish reportedly stated, “a lot more people own cell phones than they did seven years ago” and the only way to get a signal was to “climb to the top of a hill.”

Resident Karen Shaw was among the first to speak out against the Rinker tower. She requested the application “be voided outright.” Among her concerns were that the tower might fall. She was also concerned with the potential effects of electromagnetic frequencies on humans and animals. Should the tower go live, the July 7, 2004 Gazette reported, Shaw expected “reduced milk production and sick cows.” Other residents expressed concern that the tower “would ruin the natural beauty of the land.”

As reported in the August 4, 2004 issue of the Gazette, resident David Shepard said, “having access to cell phone technology would allow his wife the freedom to work again.” Resident Chris Sartelli Jr., of Hardwick, said his family felt the communications tower was necessary. He was quoted as saying. “I’m going to be the last generation of my family in this town because my children want to be a part of the 21st century and they cannot achieve that living here.”

Resident JoAnne McCarthy was reported as suggesting the tower should be built on town-owned property so the town could earn money from renting it. Her suggestion for a location was a then-town-owned parcel on Buffalo Mountain.

Despite opposing views among residents, Rinker was reported in the August 25 edition of the Gazette to be going forward with plans to build the tower “within 30 days of all permit application approvals.” The process included debates among residents regarding 5G, with one resident expressing concern about the “non-thermal effects of VHF and UHF channels.”

Resident Toni May advocated for the tower and said it could boost depressed property values in Hardwick. Tom Fadden said he thought it would provide better service for first responders. Fadden noted that due to public safety concerns resulting from 9/11, Homeland Security might begin mandating additional communications towers.

At the end of September, 2004 the Gazette reported on a fourth hearing. The select board considered hiring a consultant for $2,500 to help determine whether Buffalo Mountain might be a better site.

In a letter to the editor on September 22, 2004, resident and business owner Roger Howard wrote, “At the August 17 meeting they were grasping at straws, talking about wind, ice, whether or not it would have an effect on property values. You would think this [tower] is the first one of its kind. It’s not. Why wouldn’t someone on the Zoning Board just pick up the phone and ask the manager of Berlin if they had any problems with these issues?”

The select board did not go forward with its plan to hire a consultant. In mid-December, the zoning board approved the tower — in part. Rinker had filed for a 180-foot tower, but the board approved 100 feet plus a 20-foot antenna. While acknowledging a smaller tower would drastically reduce viability for cell service, and “the town currently has no cellular coverage,” the board said the tower’s location was a “prime location for residential development” and that a full-height tower would adversely impact future development.

The December 15, 2004 edition of the Gazette reported that “The board determined placing a tower on Buffalo Mountain would provide better cellular coverage for the town as opposed to the Bridgman Hill site, but the applicant would need landowner permission and electricity to the site, which he already has on Bridgman Hill … the evidence was clear that the proposed [Bridgman Hill] tower will not eliminate all dead spots for either two-way radio or cellular due to the irregular topography of the area.”

Rinker was “flabbergasted” by the decision and appealed to the state environmental court. In a letter to the editor, resident Sandra Howard called for Zoning Board Members Kristina Michelsen, Steve Meyer, Paul Cillo, and George Hemmens to resign. “You have neglected your own duties and acted out of cowardice. You have disregarded your constituents’ requests … You lacked the guts to just say no to the communications tower. Instead you chose to manipulate the decision to satisfy no one.”

Howard was the treasurer of Concerned Hardwick Residents, a group of citizens who started the group Take Back Hardwick (unrelated to the earlier Take Back Vermont movement.)

In early 2005, then-Zoning Board member Ken Davis proposed a solution. The January 19, 2005, Gazette reported that Davis had found “one of the finer spots in the whole town for a communications facility” capable of providing “good access to services along routes [sic] 14 and 15 as well as possibly a portion of Route 16.” The property he had in mind was owned by his brother and abutted property Davis himself owned on “several sides.” Davis secured permission to use Wright Farm Road to access an old logging road that ended 800 feet short of the proposed site. However, it was noted there was “currently no electricity to the site.”

Davis was quoted as say the land “not only encompasses the entire tip of Buffalo Mountain, but it also has many lower spots surrounding the actual peak.”

It would be seven more years before the tower was built on Bridgman Hill.