‘This Is a Serious Public Safety Concern’: Water Tower Owner ‘Evasive’ on Renewal of Leases That Provide New Canaan’s Wireless Communications

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Officials said Monday that New Canaan’s ability to continue getting cellular service across a wide swath of town may be in jeopardy, as the owner of the water towers at Waveny appears to have balked on whether to renew leases for a handful of carriers whose antennas are perched atop one of them.

Nearly half of New Canaan receives its cellular signals from the four carriers’ antennas located on top of Aquarion’s water tower, and “the town has emergency services transmitters and antennas located on that tower,” according to Tom Tesluk, chairman of the Utilities Commission.

“Over the summer it was Aquarion’s plan to have the tower repainted,” he said during the group’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall. “In order to do that, they came up with a very elaborate plan which would allow the antennas to move onto scaffolding and then move back onto the tower once the painting was finished. But we found out that they decided not to repaint the tower, and now we hear from two different carriers that the renewal of the leases that these carriers have for using that tower are in question. Aquarion has not committed to renewing those leases.”

They start to expire next year, officials said.

Aquarion officials were not immediately available for comment.

The town has been seeking clarity for several months since they became aware of the potential major problem, and Tesluk one month ago sent a letter to an Aquarion official asking her to come to the commission’s meeting to address whether AT&T Wireless, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile leases would be renewed and whether the water company will allow New Canaan to continue to operate its emergency services communications equipment—to no avail. The development with the leases also comes as New Canaan pursues an innovative plan to get comprehensive coverage in town.

“It seems pretty clear they are trying to work this out within Aquarion,” Tesluk said. “I honestly think it is very important that this become a public issue now, and that people in the town are aware that, depending on how this works out, it could have a significant impact on communications in town—not just commercial cellular but also emergency services.”

First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, in attendance at the meeting, said New Canaan one year ago received “concise instructions” on what was needed in order for its communications equipment to be temporarily relocated—though still functional—while the tower was repainted. The town cut a check for about $34,000 and sent it to Aquarion (later returned) in good faith with no idea that there was a hold-up for the cell carriers, he said. Then this summer, Aquarion officials were “evasive” regarding their commitment to the carriers and the town itself in terms of keeping its wireless communications equipment on the tower, Mallozzi said.

“The fact that they cannot commit to us in a reasonable amount of time with their intentions of going forward with going forward with the carriers or us with our emergency services is not a good sign,” he said.

“The purpose of bringing this public is we gave them three months—I think that’s the right way to go about this—I don’t want to shame them in public, but this is a serious public safety concern for all of us,” Mallozzi said. “And we were not getting answers and now we will flush out the answers in a public forum. I am not vilifying Aquarion at this point—they have internal bureaucracies that they probably are going through—but we know what it takes to build facilities. It’s hard. It takes a long time. And two years—to me, if we are ‘off’ [the tower] in two years, we better have a plan in two years to have something else in place, or else it’s not good.”

It isn’t clear whether Aquarion’s hesitation is part of a negotiation with the carriers or if the water company plans to move away from keeping wireless antennas on its towers as a matter of policy. Asked by the commission whether Aquarion is being similarly evasive regarding leases with cell service carriers in other towns, Mallozzi said he would ask his counterparts in neighboring communities.

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