Taking to heart residents’ concerns about proposed cell towers at Irwin Park and West School, especially with respect to people’s health, town officials said Monday night that they’re actively looking at alternatives.
During a meeting that saw members of the Board of Selectmen and Utilities Commission admonish some for what they called disrespectful and uncivilly delivered remarks at a recent public hearing, officials said they’ve asked consultants to find out whether a different location in Irwin would still work and whether there are alternative sites in western New Canaan to the elementary school there.
“We are going to set aside West School for now while we look for different choices,” Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Tesluk said during the meeting, held at Town Hall and attended by about 15 people.
The commission has discussed its early-stage proposal since last week’s public hearing and concluded that “coming up with additional options and alternatives is an important part of what we are going to enter into.”
Specifically, the commission has asked consultants from Boca Raton, Fla.-based wireless telecom consulting firm Cityscape to look at relocating a proposed cell tower from the southwest corner of Irwin “up the hill, closer to the garage” and “to actively explore and determine what we would need up there” to achieve sufficient cell coverage in that part of town, Tesluk said.
“With respect to West School, it is a trickier situation because at the moment finding alternative locations on the west side is difficult. But that is not to say that we are not going to look for alternatives. My advice to the first selectman is that we asked CityScape to go back and look at that site and look hard at adjusting it, moving it within the property or finding some alternative we can rely on.”
The decision reflects the strong and in many cases emotionally charged pushback from several groups of residents—including park-goers, school parents and neighbors—following the commission’s proposal for cell towers at Irwin and West.
Much of that pushback came forward during a public hearing described as contentious and combative, leading some longtime residents including Dan Ward and Tom Butterworth to say they’d not seen its like in New Canaan and that the tone of those opposed to the inchoate proposal discredited them.
Tesluk said the commission was “as a group, disappointed with what took place” during the April 24 hearing.
“We felt that the standard of behavior that took place was below what we could reasonably expect as volunteers and as people trying to solve problems in this town,” he said. “So we need to understand that at any regularly scheduled commission meeting, public participation is purely discretionary on the commission and on the chairman, in particular. There is no obligation to hear anything from the public during a regularly scheduled meeting. We believe and we have consistently believed that it is important to allow for public participation and we are happy to do so.”
The commission “will not tolerate rude behavior either from audience in terms of throwing out comments or questions and we will not tolerate speakers who go over their allocated time, and we will not tolerate rude language, personal attacks, heavy sarcasm,” he added. “None of that is appropriate here. We all live in this town. We all need to work together to solve these problems.”
First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who re-formed the Utilities Commission on taking office, addressed the commission at the top of the meeting, thanking its volunteer members—and others who give of their time to help New Canaan operate—for helping to “solve the myriad issues facing our town.”
“Like others, members of the Utilities Commission work at problem-solving at the request of us, the town leaders,” Mallozzi said. “Often what is returned after months—and sometimes years—of review on a subject can be uncomfortable for some, and that is to be expected. But what is so very important is that you folks receive the support and backing of all town leaders and the respect for the time and attention you put into recommending solutions for our residents. We all don’t have to agree, but the conversation must remain civil and respectful.”
Mallozzi added that there’s been wide misunderstanding that the Utilities Commission and Planning & Zoning Commission “have not been on the same track,” saying the former town planner and others have weighed in for a period of years.
“For those that may also think the Utilities Commission’s recommendations were offered up in a vacuum, they were not,” he said. “Please know that the commission’s recommendations were delivered in public meetings over the past two years and voting on funding of studies and consultants by the Board of Selectmen, Town Council and Board of Finance all took place during public meetings.”
“No structures will be built anywhere without major public input and sign-off from multiple town and state agencies. The public input to date has been received loudly and clearly and, although sometimes the tenor of the discussion became unfortunately elevated, one thing for sure resulted: a dialogue is taking place that I believe will lead to an even more enlightened approach and may in fact yield options that town leaders had not previously contemplated.”
The tone during Monday’s meeting was decidedly more civil, and speakers included Joseph Palo, who had addressed the commission last week and this time submitted five studies that address cell towers and cancer at distances of 300 and 500 meters.
Most of the guest-speaker time was devoted to Ray Vergati of Danbury-based wireless infrastructure company Homeland Towers. He described an 18-month timeline from the time a project is proposed to the time it’s built, and described several hurdles, opportunities for public input and checks-and-balancs along the way.
“This project is in its infant stage,” Vergati said.
Identifying himself as a lifelong Connecticut resident and father of five, Vergati laid out the multiple layers of approvals required to erect a cell tower.
“We go through a very extensive process and vetting of the site through the Siting Council,” he said, referring to a state agency.
Selectman Beth Jones also addressed the commission, thanking its members for their service to the town.
“I know there have been lots of other bodies, too, that we have conflicts people do not agree on things, but we all know that all of you and all our other volunteers are only doing it because they love the town and care about that town,” Jones said. “And that is always what decisions are based on, so I hope it ends up that we can agree to disagree when that happens.”
Unable to attend the meeting because of a work conflict, Selectman Nick Williams issued a statement that was read into the record.
He thanked the commissioners for their “hard” and “terrific” work in searching for a solution to “one of our town’s most intractable problems—the lack of adequate cell phone service.”
“As many of us have noted at various times, this is a safety issue of paramount importance in New Canaan and your selfless efforts in this regard are most appreciated,” Williams wrote.
“I watched your recent public meeting on television and was frankly flabbergasted at the tone of some of the speakers, which at times I thought was uncivil and downright personal. I’m sorry you had to face that thorny opposition, but I do not believe that those individuals speak for the vast majority of our townspeople, who recognize the very difficult job your Commission faces and appreciate the diligence and professionalism that you have brought to bear on the entire cell service issue. You represent what is best about New Canaan—bright, hardworking volunteers who give selflessly of their time and energy.”
In some ways, the commission’s work in seeking to improve cell coverage for areas that lack it is being subsumed by an at least equally pressing concern: As long suspected, Aquarion will no longer allow cellular antennas atop the water towers at Waveny as of the fall of 2019. The infrastructure there provides the basis for emergency radio communications throughout the town for police, fire and EMTs, Tesluk said. New Canaan has considered erecting its own infrastructure just beside the water towers, which sit on Aquarion-owned property.