In the latest step toward adding a new monopole cell tower in Wilton (to be located near the school bus depot property at 180 School Rd., opposite Middlebrook School), a public information session was held last Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022.
The information session included an analysis of a recently completed “red balloon” test of the proposed tower’s visibility. While Verizon contends the tower will have little or no visual impact throughout Town, a small number of homeowners, particularly in the area of upper Catalpa Rd. and Richdale Dr., could be more significantly impacted.
They’re pushing Verizon to repeat the visibility test and include more vantage points in the analysis, but Verizon seems to have the momentum to proceed with next steps in the process of obtaining the state’s approval for the site.
A video recording of the entire meeting has been posted on the Town website. Three presentation documents, which include coverage maps and aerial views of the proposed Tower, have also been posted on the Board of Selectmen page.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice opened the meeting by telling the audience, “This is really a Verizon meeting. They’re here to share with the community [before] filing their application with the Connecticut Siting Council.”
The Council is a state authority with jurisdiction over the siting of telecommunications infrastructure.
Vanderslice went on to remind residents where the process stands at this point in time.
“The Town has a lease with Verizon. The lease has been executed,” she said. “The next process is for Verizon to file with the Connecticut Siting Council. We wanted them to come here and talk about it first, so all of you with questions or concerns could have them addressed in advance.”
The Verizon team included an attorney as well as representatives from environmental consulting, site acquisition and engineering.
An Area Lacking Coverage
Ken Baldwin, an attorney for Verizon, kicked off the team’s presentation.
“If you drive this area on a regular basis, it’s pretty obvious, you run into poor or non-existent coverage,” Baldwin said. “It’s been on Verizon’s radar screen for some time.”
The map below, one of several presented during the meeting, illustrates Baldwin’s point, with a large swath (shown in white) currently lacking coverage around the proposed cell tower site. While there is some coverage in the area (shown in green), it is not the most reliable service (shown in blue).
With the proposed new tower, significant gaps are filled in.
Environmental and Visual Impact
Dean Gustafson, a senior environmental scientist, spoke about the tower’s impact on the surroundings.
He explained that Verizon is required to adhere to CT DEEP regulations pertaining to wetlands, rare wildlife species, and other environmental factors, as well as FCC emissions safety standards.
“We’ll be able to clearly document the project will not have any adverse effect on environmental resources,” Gustafson stated.
Baldwin added that calculations based on the height and intended frequencies of the proposed tower show it would operate at a mere 7% of the allowable FCC safety standard.
But Baldwin acknowledged, “The principal environmental effect the Siting Council looks at is visibility.”
The proposed tower would be 123 feet in height. Brian Gaudet, one of the environmental consultants on the team, characterized it as “fairly low” relative to industry norms.
In its analysis of the proposed tower’s visibility, Verizon included a two-mile radius around the proposed tower — an 8,042-acre area. Of that, 11 were found to have year-round views. Just over 6 of those acres were Town-owned land, including the bus depot and Middlebrook school.
The computer modeling below shows expected year-round visibility in yellow, with seasonal visibility in orange. (Note: blue and green do not depict visible areas.)
The greatest visibility is expected to be from Middlebrook, as shown in the simulated photo below.
Gaudet went through a detailed presentation including photographs from the recent visibility test taken from 27 locations throughout Town, notably in areas where computer models were predicting potential visibility based on elevations and topography.
While photos and simulations suggest minimal visibility for the vast majority of residents in the area, Gaudet seemed careful not to dismiss the potential impact for some neighbors, particularly in the Catalpa Rd. and Richdale Dr. neighborhood. As the proposed site plan reveals, the tower is just 150 feet from the closest neighboring property.
While Gaudet said “there’s not much here” in terms of the overall visibility impact, he quickly added, “But not to detract from those areas that do have visibility… we do need to evaluate what that impact is.”
“But cumulatively, in a 2-mile study area, it’s very low,” he repeated.
Residents Raise Questions
Brian Radle of 103 Catalpa Rd. expressed a number of concerns and questions.
His comments began with a request for additional coverage maps based on lower tower heights.
“If this was a 100-foot tower, if this was a 90-foot tower, what is the impact on those cell coverages?” Radle asked. “You’re saying you need this [123-foot height], but we haven’t seen anything that justifies the height.”
A lower height, Radle said, might make a big difference to neighbors with only a small tradeoff on Verizon’s coverage gains.
Baldwin responded that engineers make the determination on the height needed for the desired coverage area. He said the Siting Council might request alternative height scenarios, but Verizon would not typically offer them upfront.
Radle called that a “major flaw” in the information being presented to residents.
He criticized the methodology of the red balloon test, which was done with full foliage and with little advance notice to residents who could have photographed the view from their homes and potentially dispute Verizon’s assertion of no visibility in their area.
Since photos were only taken in areas where visibility was predicted by the computer models, none were taken in the area of upper Catalpa Rd. The only photo Verizon offered (photo 6 in the presentation documents) was taken from the Catalpa and Richdale Dr. intersection, which concluded there was “no visibility” of the proposed tower.
Radle is also concerned Verizon used photographs selectively to support its findings. In a follow-up email, Radle wrote to Vanderslice, “Pictures and locations included in the report appear to be presented in a way that minimizes the impact to the community instead of presenting an accurate representation.”
In a conciliatory effort, Baldwin indicated that Verizon would be willing to conduct another red balloon test and to take additional photos from private properties, with permission from those homeowners.
Vanderslice, who personally attended the first test and drove to various locations to see the results for herself, said a second test would be a good idea.
“We’ll figure out a process and then get the word out,” she said.
[Editor’s note: on Sunday, Nov. 6, Vanderslice posted an update on the town website (that was also sent out to residents who have subscribed to her email updates) with instructions for anyone who wants their address added to the list of private properties Verizon will check during its second test. Interested residents should email Community Affairs Coordinator Sarah Gioffre. Include the property address, the specific spots from which photos should be taken (backyard, poolside, on the deck, etc.), and any other relevant information. When the date is set, Vanderslice said Gioffre will email notice to registered residents at least a week in advance; in addition, the Town will issue an e-alert, and Verizon representatives will contact registered residents about arrangements.]
Another resident at the meeting, Ben Randol of 87 Catalpa Rd., questioned the Verizon team on whether alternative locations had been considered, and why Verizon was prioritizing the area around the proposed site instead of other poor coverage areas.
Christina Glass, the site acquisition leader on the team, offered assurances that other locations, including existing tower sites, had been evaluated.
Glass further responded to a remote meeting participant (identified only as “Diane”) who raised the possibility of utilizing or replacing what she described as an aging, 70-foot cell tower on her property.
Glass said that tower had been investigated by Verizon but was not capable of supporting Verizon’s equipment or meeting its coverage goals.
Vanderslice has emphasized that the area around the proposed new tower has been one of high dissatisfaction for residents, especially students, staff and parents at the nearby schools and playing fields, as well as along portions of Ridgefield Rd.
She also prepared residents at the meeting for the reality that the need for reliable service for a high number of residents might outweigh the visible impact of the tower on a few.
“If there’s two neighbors where it’s visible, I’m going to be honest, you’re in a tough situation,” she told the residents at the meeting.
Before ending the meeting, Baldwin took a moment to thank the residents who attended the session.
“These meetings are an important part of the process,” he said, promising to “do our best to keep you in mind in the process and be as transparent as possible.”
Baldwin reiterated his intention to pursue additional visibility testing, to consider the possibility of shifting the tower further away from some residents’ view, and to confirm that all other existing structures or alternative locations had been considered.
Once Verizon submits an application, the Siting Council review process could take six months to a year. The Council will expect Verizon to clearly demonstrate the need for the tower, which Verizon believes its current coverage maps will provide.
The Council will also schedule a public hearing (which, in recent times, have been conducted by Zoom) followed by an additional, 30-day public comment period.
If approved, a final site plan must be submitted by Verizon to the Council, which would have up to 60 days to give its final approval. One resident questioned whether the height of the tower could change at that point. Both Vanderslice and Wilton town counsel Doug LoMonte assured the resident that a taller tower would require a change in Verizon’s lease agreement, with permission required from both the Board of Selectmen and the Siting Council.
Baldwin said he expects Verizon will file its application by the end of year, with construction possible by next summer. Notices of the application and the hearing date will be sent to property owners in the impacted area, and will also appear in local media.
Baldwin emphasized the Council moves slowly and methodically. The State of Connecticut website shows why, with the Council being responsible for, among other things:
- “balancing the need for adequate and reliable public utility services at the lowest reasonable cost to consumers with the need to protect the environment and ecology of the state and to minimize damage to scenic, historic, and recreational values
- “providing environmental standards for the location, design, construction, and operation of public utility facilities that are at least as stringent as federal environmental standards and that are sufficient to assure the welfare and protection of the people of Connecticut
- “encouraging research to develop new and improved methods of generating, storing, and transmitting electricity and fuel and of transmitting and receiving television and telecommunications signals with minimal damage to the environment
- “promoting the sharing of telecommunications towers in order to avoid their unnecessary proliferation”
Wait… What About Other Carriers?
Baldwin alluded to the latter point during the information session.
The proposed tower would be constructed in a way that could accommodate other carriers, like AT&T.
“The [equipment] compound is appropriately sized. Consistent with state policy and the Siting Council’s policy, the tower could be shared by other carriers if there’s a need, not only on the tower itself but in the equipment compound as well,” Baldwin said, noting the compound area would be roughly 12 by 20 feet in size, accommodating multiple carriers’ equipment cabinets, a backup generator and a propane tank.
Residents can participate in the Siting Council’s review process and even gain “intervener” status as recognized active participants.
The Council’s website offers resources to the public including past decisions, meetings and minutes; a calendar of upcoming events; any filings made by Verizon; and guidelines for public participation.