Kevin Clark, a resident of Wahackme Road, built his house 20 years ago, past the footpath that loops around the back of a 36-acre parcel known to New Canaanites today as Irwin Park.
When locals debated the acquisition of that parcel as public land, Clark recalled, he sided with those in favor of the purchase “because [former First Selectman] Judy Neville and the Town Council assured us that it would be set aside as beautiful parkland and preserve the integrity of the landscape and preserve the integrity of the quiet residential community that has existed there for 100 years.”
Faced now with the prospect of a 110-foot cell tower near the park’s southwest corner—a draft plan whose development has been overseen by the New Canaan Utilities Commission—Clark said he is concerned that those assurances had been hollow.
“I do not think any of you would want an 11-story tower in your backyard,” Clark told members of the Utilities Commission during their regular meeting, held at Town Hall.
“Where it is sited right now, I will open my shade in the morning when I wake up in my bedroom and I will see the tower. It is just not the way a town like New Canaan should act—in a responsible way for its citizens. It should have a fair solution—unobtrusive, it should blend into the environment, in a commercial area. Maybe there is a better area in Irwin Park that is camouflaged. No resident should have their property values diminished by an ugly tower.”
The comments came as town officials, including those on the commission as well as the Town Council—the elected body that ultimately will decide whether or where to site a cell tower on town-owned land—field concerns from those who live near the proposed location at Irwin Park or a second location at West School.
During the meeting, Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Tesluk offered extensive background for the proposed towers at Irwin and West—a years-long effort that amounts to a draft plan at this point—and cleared up some misinformation regarding the infrastructure itself, for example, that a 75-by-75-foot area “lease area” specified on the map is a flat mat rather than a concrete block.
Though there appears to be no equally effective alternative to the proposed West School location in terms of cellular coverage, Tesluk said, the commission found that a site in on New Canaan Nature Center property would be preferable to Irwin. However, the Nature Center property is deed-restricted and in a way that makes it “highly problematic,” Tesluk said.
West School is “ideally situated” for boosting cell coverage in the western, northwestern and even southern parts of town, to the bottom of Frogtown Road, he said.
“So that is a site that all of our own analysis, the town’s analysis, indicated is very important,” Tesluk said. “So where we are today is, we would expect once we have a visual analysis to widen the conversation—I have had conversations with neighbors around Irwin Park, I’m sure we will continue to do that. I will be presenting together with Cityscape before the Town Council on April 20 to give them more information and an update on what we are doing. And we will continue to search for a solution to the problem. I do think that there is a solution that is out there. I do think that it is unlikely that everyone in the town is going to love the solution, but I do think that a solution is out there.”
The Utilities Commission has labored for several years to find effective, agreeable ways to bring cell coverage to parts of New Canaan that do not have it—for public safety as well as quality-of-life reasons. Under Tesluk’s stewardship, the town has taken a greater degree of direct oversight not only in identifying just where New Canaan lacks coverage but also where and what types of infrastructure would be needed to address gaps in coverage. Certain solutions that may appear ideal in theory, Tesluk said—for example, using only less conspicuous, so-called “stealth” infrastructure throughout parts of northern and western New Canaan—are not feasible, either because they’re cost-prohibitive or because the contours of the land require at least some higher-elevation signaling.
Tesluk described the solution that the commission is pursuing as a combination of towers and less conspicuous technologies, and underscored that a major change in what New Canaan is pursuing now is that it’s mapping town-owned properties only as prospective locations. That will afford New Canaan greater control on the final height of towers when it comes time to apply to the relevant state agency for approval, he said.
The town’s original strategy for improving coverage had been to hire a radio engineering firm, which made New Canaan dependent on carriers and tower developers for recommending sites for towers, Tesluk said. In the end, sites such as the Transfer Station were proposed, which in the end may have served carriers needs’ well—for example, by bringing additional service to a dead zone on the Merritt Parkway—but not necessarily New Canaan’s. Further, leaving the work of planning for infrastructure in the hands of carriers or tower developers meant no one was looking out for the aesthetic concerns of those who actually live here, Tesluk said. The Transfer Station proposal, would have been an industrial eyesore.
Tesluk, who has worked in wireless for 25 years, has said his goal is to improve coverage in a way that minimizes the impact of ugly sites.
Two years ago, the town had a study done and as part of the evaluation process hired a second consultant, Cityscape, which was charged with identifying a candidate through the RFP process to enter into a master lease with the town to get access to some municipal properties for the purposes of siting future cell sites. Cityscape chose a company called Homeland as its candidate, and after identifying a list of municipal parcels where cell sites may be erected, the New Canaan Nature Center or Irwin Park, as well as West School, emerged as top candidates.
There’s a water tower at West School that’s owned by Aquarion, and the water company doesn’t want to get into cell service, Tesluk has said, but the consultants found a point east of the tower that’s at a good elevation for a “macro site” or tower that will cover a wider area.
Janee Hunter during the meeting said her home on Bennington Place is about 110 feet from the property line with West School and that a cell tower there would be “in my back yard.”
“I cannot believe that we are not better than this,” she told the commission. “That in a town such as New Canaan, we really think that cell service is more important than not placing this within 400 feet of a school building and 150 feet of a house.”
Hunter said that neighbors on her street as well as school parents are being made aware of the prospect of a cell tower at West School and that “this is the beginning of a big outcry” among them.
Hunter said that she moved to New Canaan and near West School in particular for its top rating adding: “I will tell you, if I had seen a cell tower 110 feet above West School, I would not have moved to New Canaan.”
She also asked Tesluk and the commission whether a plan to install a two-way radio tower just over the line in Stamford may improve coverage in New Canaan (no) and for information on just when a “balloon test” would be conducted at West School to give residents a chance to get an idea of what a tower there would look like.
Tesluk said he wasn’t sure just when that test would take place, but that it would be publicly noticed.
Town councilman John Engel—one of six in attendance, with Bill Walbert, Sven Englund, Ken Campbell, Kevin Moynihan and Cristina Ross—said he appreciated all the good information that Tesluk was providing and wanted town bodies to coordinate communications better to the wider town.
“I think that this is a very useful forum,” Engel said.
He added: “Probably all of us could do a better job of getting information out town-wide—particularly to neighbors of the affected properties.”
He called for the commission to put together a schedule that informs residents of developments in the early-stage proposal for cell sites looking out one year.
In the meantime, Tesluk said the tower at Smith Ridge and Country Club Roads is approximately 110 feet tall and, though it has only two carriers using the pole now, is an example of how a “stealth monopole” may look.
“I can tell you this much,” Tesluk said. “Whether the design is a tree or a monopole … it is our intention to have it fit in with the surrounding landscape and blend in as much as possible.”