More than 100 New Canaan residents gathered at Town Hall Monday night to express their thoughts and ask questions regarding the Utilities Commission’s preliminary proposal to build cell phone towers at Irwin Park and West School in efforts to improve service in the north and west sections of the town.
The meeting, which opened the floor to the public and was in session for more than three hours, was at times tense and acrimonious as residents and commission members clashed over how the process has gone thus far and how it could affect the town in both the short- and long-term.
Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Tesluk opened with a presentation extensively detailing the plans for the proposed cell towers, but stressed that the purpose of the meeting was to garner feedback from residents and provide an opportunity for the consultants hired by the town for the project the chance to answer questions. He also reiterated that the official decision on the construction of the towers would ultimately be up to the Town Council and not the commission.
“There has been a certain sense in this town, at a point, that maybe this is a done deal, maybe there’s been a Pearl Harbor sneak attack of powers, but I promise you there hasn’t,” he told the crowd. “And what we’ve been seeing and what we’ve been reading about, I hope, conveys that we are on a long path to try and resolve this and that your input, your advice, and your comments are a very important part of this process, and what I can tell you is that this won’t be the last public information meeting on this matter.”
From the start, it was clear that many residents felt that they were being left out of the decision-making process and that the aesthetics and integrity of the proposed sites weren’t being considered.
Parish Road resident Lorraine Gilden said that she agrees that cell service in New Canaan needs improvement, but doesn’t think that Irwin Park should be considered as a proposed site.
“I don’t want it to adversely impact the enjoyment we have of our parks, specifically Irwin Park, which I happen to think is one of the nicest parks we have in town, which we paid $20 million for in 2004,” she said. “And I was one of the people who voted on the referendum, and as far as I was concerned, the referendum limited the use of Irwin Park—one-third, I think was for fields, another two-thirds was for recreational [use]. There really wasn’t anything in about building an infrastructure or a cell tower.”
Gilden also said she was concerned that the proposal could include the construction of an access road through the park to allow maintenance vehicles to access to the tower. Tesluk clarified that there are two different locations in Irwin Park being considered: one that would require an access road and another that wouldn’t, and that it would be up to the Town Council to decide which site to choose. In response, Gilden proposed “putting the whole thing out to vote” in the same manner that residents voted on the purchase of Irwin Park. Residents responded to Gilden’s comments with a round of applause.
The mood turned contentious when Woods End Road resident Elliot Siderides criticized Tesluk’s attempt to limit each speaker’s time at the podium at five minutes and insisted that was Tesluk “was not going to cut me off from making my presentation.”
Siderides questioned the validity of the UC’s mission statement and reminded members that it’s the residents that own Irwin Park and West School, not them.
“You’re in an advisory role, you’re not the Planning & Zoning Commission, you don’t set limits on heights, you don’t set limits on setbacks,” he said. “You don’t understand values of properties, you don’t understand values of schools, you don’t understand values of parks, otherwise we wouldn’t have these crude presentations that we do today.”
Siderides continued by implying that West School students could have created a “far more suitable” presentation than Tesluk’s “one-size-fits-all plan,” but was quickly jeered for what attendees called a personal attack against Tesluk.
Once Siderides got back on track, he posed both some alternate suggestions, such as using towers that are built to look like flagpoles, and questioned why the Commission wasn’t considering more advanced micro cell site technology. Tesluk explained that micro cell sites are normally used by a single cell phone provider to extend service to certain area, but that the Commission was looking for a solution that would accommodate all four companies that currently provide coverage to the town (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.). So, instead of each provider having its own series of micro cell sites attached to utility poles across town, all of them would share the two towers.
Some residents also expressed concern about the timing of the UC’s proposal and questioned why an RFP was sent out to bidders before any input was received by the Planning & Zoning Commission or the Town Council. Resident Rob Young was one the first to address this concern.
“Find me a banker, a lawyer, or a real estate broker that would determine the rules after the game. The rules need to be established before the game and what I mean by that is there’s not one person in the town of New Canaan that knows what the Planning & Zoning Commission or Town Council would agree to…not one person in this room, not one person in the town can understand that” Young said. “And the problem with that is that we have five responses to our RFP and have four large carriers in the United States and there’s a whole bunch of large power companies and none of them responded. And someone should ask, ‘Why is that?’ And the answer is that18 months into it, all of these people are in a room and they start yelling at each and if we would agree to what Planning & Zoning would approve and what the Town Council would approve, we’d be a lot farther along.”
Young went on to question how the UC could negotiate a master lease without knowing first the location of the equipment, as well as the financial, infrastructure and environmental issues that would come into play. Tesluk responded by saying that when Cityscape, the town’s consultant on the proposed project, reached out to the four major carriers, they expressed frustration at the amount of pushback they received from residents in the past and said the issue would be “instantly politicized” if they tried again.
Dan Radman, who sits on P&Z and addressed the group as a resident and neighbor of Irwin, also expressed his concern that the commission only learned about the proposal five weeks ago and compared the UC’s actions to a “residential home buyer approaching an architect with no idea of how much he wants to spend.”
Tesluk told attendees that the UC has been diligently sharing info with P&Z “since the beginning of 2016” and that numerous emails were exchanged and meetings were held with Chairman John Goodwin about this “extremely complex process.”
The debate eventually turned to the possible health effects of having cell phone towers placed near schools and residential areas. Although the UC Commission cited studies from WHO and the American Cancer Society concluding that there’s no evidence that the non-ionizing radiation emitted from cell phone towers is harmful to humans, numerous attendees insisted that their information was out of date.
Arrowhead Trail resident Joseph Palo, who has an extensive background in health and has worked with PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Biotechnology and Global Pharmaceuticals Group and was a board member of the American Heart Association, told the commission that “the paradigm has shifted” since the studies that the UC cited were released and that there are warnings from WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the possible dangers of cancer and DNA damage caused by radio frequency waves from cell phones and cell phone towers.
Frogtown Lane resident Laurel Howe also spoke about her concerns for the health of her children, Luke and Wes, how both attend West School. Howe and both of her sons addressed the Commission and Luke brought with him a petition with 64 of his classmates’ signatures to oppose the cell phone tower.
“I just want to say that…so what you’re planning to do is build a tower on a property where all of these kids are…I’m not trying to criticize you, but maybe there might be a better spot for it,” he said.
While many attendees were opposed to the UC’s plan, a few agreed that for emergency service purposes an appropriate location should be agreed upon. Residents also encouraged each other to remain open minded and civil as the town tries to figure how its next steps.
Jonathan Road resident Dan Ward, who served on the New Canaan Board of Finance for 18 years, said he wanted to see the issue resolved as soon as possible so that all residents could have adequate cell phone service during emergencies.
“We’re all residents of the same town,” he said. “We want what’s best for the town and one of the things I learned is almost inevitably when you get into something important in this town, aesthetics and property value come up, but safety first…[Property value] seems to be the standard objection to almost anything suggested in this town, so be careful how you use it and remember that if you suggest a well thought out plan… it’s going to involve that for somebody because it’s got to be somewhere if you’re going to fix the problem… so there’s never going to be a location unless somebody says, ‘I don’t want it in my backyard, let’s put it someplace else.’ Try to come up with the thing that has the least impact, please.”