by Doug McClure
MONTPELIER – In a petition filed with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on December 9, AT&T requested the PUC to dismiss its request for a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for the proposed Buffalo Mountain cell tower.
AT&T said its request was “based upon the general opposition to the proposed project as evidenced by the motions and public comments filed to date.” Further, AT&T said in its motion that it had identified “an existing wireless telecommunications support structure in the general area of Hardwick that may be capable of supporting AT&T’s antennas and equipment.”
AT&T’s counsel, Will Dodge of Burlington-based Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC (DRM), declined to specify where or what that location was. However, AT&T had only two other active CPGs relatively close to Hardwick in the PUC’s system as of December 9. A tower was proposed for Jacobs Road in East Montpelier, but according to the town, that proposal is on hold because AT&T is looking at another potential site that is not in East Montpelier.
The only other CPG petition from DRM for AT&T or under its official name (New Cingular Wireless PCS, LLC) is a proposed upgrade to towers on a silo on Bolton Road in Cabot. Of the three CPGs, only the Hardwick one generated enough anti-technology sentiment that some concerned residents filed Motions to Intervene and in one case a Motion to Dismiss against the CPG.
The AT&T motion to dismiss is “without prejudice,” meaning the company can refile. The company withdrew its request less than two months since it initially filed its CPG despite over a year of preliminary work, including hundreds of pages of engineering documents, multiple meetings with residents and town officials, and a balloon test. AT&T asked the PUC to rule that “all pending motions in this case are moot in light of this motion to dismiss.” AT&T’s attorneys specifically responded to a Motion to Intervene from Lenore and Wayne Renaud, stating that “[AT&T] no longer wishes to pursue the Project at the proposed location.”
AT&T continued that response stating “the Renauds are not adjoining property owners (their residence is located approximately 1.2 miles from the Project site); the Renauds’ interest in protection of their property values is not a cognizable interest for purposes of 30 V.S.A. §248a” and that those concerns were not distinct from general public concerns. Further, the response stated, “generalized interests in enforcement of aesthetic standards and town planning documents would be more than adequately represented by the Hardwick Planning Commission and the Department of Public Service.”
While AT&T’s decision to withdraw its application will please residents who objected to construction of a new tower, the decision may adversely impact cellular service in the area. Just one cellular-supporting tower has been constructed in Hardwick in over a quarter-century, the Bridgman Hill Tower. AT&T made modifications to the antennas on that tower in 2019. The company’s representatives have said at more than one select board meeting that the Bridgman Hill Tower is nearing its capacity.
According to the 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan, the NEK ranked lowest in the state for satisfaction with cellular service, with almost two-thirds of people surveyed in the region rating the coverage as “fair” or “poor” and over a quarter rating it as “poor.” In 2015, the Northeast Vermont Development Association identified closing “gaps” in cell service in the region as an economic development priority. Numerous economic analyses have concluded that lack of broadband and cell service are factors in young people leaving the region, potential residents opting out of moving to the NEK, and businesses choosing not to relocate to the NEK despite lower overhead than the state’s more developed counties, such as Chittenden County. In the fall of 2020, AT&T’s signal went out in Hardwick more than twice for extended periods. Town Manager Shaun Fielder declined to comment on the Motion to Dismiss. Following its standard procedures, the PUC is requesting comments by December 23 on AT&T’s petition to dismiss its CPG application at bit.ly/39vtIbI.