In a blow to the town’s highest elected official, New Canaan’s legislative body asserted last week that the town needs an active volunteer commission that advises on utilities.
Weeks into his first term in 2017, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said that he wished to dissolve the Utilities Commission while tackling cell coverage in New Canaan himself.
Since then, Moynihan has brought no one forward to populate the six-person commission, which is down to three members—not enough to qualify as a quorum—and hasn’t posted a meeting agenda in four years.
This summer, after it became known that Moynihan was planning to erect a cell tower behind West School, fellow members of the Board of Selectmen pushed back. In October, when Selectmen Kathleen Corbet and Nick Williams called for the reinstitution of the Utilities Commission, Moynihan said he didn’t “see the need” for it.
Even so, Corbet and Williams this month pushed again for a reactivated Utilities Commission.
And last week, the Town Council voted unanimously during an informal straw poll that New Canaan needs an active Utilities Commission and that the Council will do whatever is necessary to flesh that out, including taking input from the Board of Selectmen.
“Right now, as we have a very active first selectman—he is having the thought process and the meetings that are not public meetings,” Councilman Cristina A. Ross said during the elected body’s Dec. 14 meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
Referring to the proposed West School cell tower, Ross continued: “So the public doesn’t hear about the project itself until it’s already done. And nobody has had the time or the opportunity to learn about it, to digest it, to process it, to come to their own conclusions. And nobody has had the opportunity to provide input, which sometimes changes the course of direction, if somebody has different information. And it also brings in a diversified set of opinions because everybody comes from different professional places, and when the first selectman is meeting with Homeland Towers or any of the utilities or carriers, he or she is hearing only that point of view, without having the ability to counter. And I think that was interesting at the public hearing how they were countering and the validity of what they were saying in response to a decision that has already been made. So I think that a committee or a commission would act in a way that it would be the voice that would welcome and be notified and engage the public, and I think it’s crucial to the process.”
Ross, Chair Steve Karl, Vice Chair Mark Grzymski, Vice Chair Penny Young and Councilmen Robin Bates Mason, Rita Bettino, Tom Butterworth, Luke Kaufman, Mike Mauro, Kimberly Norton, Hilary Ormond and Maria Naughton voted in favor of the straw poll sense of the Council.
Bettino said one benefit of having the Utilities Commission is that residents would have the opportunity of “just watching the sausage being made.”
“The public would like to see these decisions being made and what information we are considering,” Bettino said. “And I think the town would benefit from that and have that be more transparent. And it would be great to have this committee doing that.”
She added that having a Utilities Commission could help with managing work streams for decisions such as on the proposed cell tower and that “it allows for some people who have some expertise in that area to be allowed to weigh in and get the right information.”
It isn’t clear whether or how an active Utilities Commission could affect or alter Moynihan’s plan for a cell tower that would be located about 900 feet behind West School (and 600 feet from its playing fields). Moynihan in seeking the town’s highest elected seat ran on a platform that included improving cellular coverage for public safety reasons. Since then, a tower has gone up on private property on Soundview Drive in northeastern New Canaan, and the Connecticut Siting Council this month approved plans for a tower in northwestern New Canaan, along Ponus Ridge at Dan’s Highway.
Those advocating for the West School cell tower have included New Canaan Fire Department representatives who say better coverage is needed to transmit data during emergency calls. Others have said cell service remains spotty on the west side of town for residents as well as prospective homebuyers, and that New Canaan already has kids playing outside near cell towers, such as at New Canaan High School.
Those opposed to the West School cell tower include an EMT who says that two-way radios work perfectly well in the area of the school and are what those in EMS use to communicate. Others have raised concerns about the potential health effects of a cell tower on children, have said that there’s already adequate coverage in the area and have said an unsightly 145-foot “monopole” tower could harm property values.
The Town Council has held one public hearing on the proposed cell tower at West School, focused on coverage needs, and has said it plans to hold another hearing that focuses on health effects.
Moynihan, a guest at the meeting, said that New Canaan historically “has had terrible cell service” and that towers in the past have taken about 15 years to get built.
“I said before, cell service does not improve with age if you don’t add infrastructure,” Moynihan said. “This town has inadequate infrastructure to have reliable cell service. I ran on this, partly because of my frustration with plans and studies and no action.”
He added, “I’ve probably spent 2,000 hours on this in the last nine years. It’s the number one thing I worked on. It’s very complicated and maybe people can criticize me for doing a job. I’ve accelerated the pace. But if we don’t get it done this town is not going to be a modern town and safe town. I don’t do this for my health.”
“We cannot give up on this issue for the town of New Canaan,” Moynihan said. “This will be very harmful to our future if we do this.”
The Councilmen spent some time on the open question of whether or not the town’s ordinance for the Utilities Commission needs to be updated.
Ormond said the Commission’s mission appeared to be “pretty general”—an interpretation that Corbet and Williams share. She asked Moynhan whether, if the Town Council looks at the section of the Town Code dealing with the Utilities Commission, “will you commit to appointing enough members so that it’s a fulsome committee?”
“Because right now there’s three active members,” she said. “We don’t know if they are still willing to serve—they have not had a meeting since 2018. But those three members do not constitute a quorum right now, so they cannot have a meeting. So will you commit now to appointing people to that commission, assuming that we signal that we want that to be a commission?”
Moynihan responded, “If there is a commission that has a modern focus, sure. But again, I have already looked at other towns around us and the Utility Commissions that they do have are doing much different things, some of which we don’t want to have done.”
Butterworth said he could go either way on the matter and “I’ll definitely follow what people want to do.”
“But I do respect the argument that it’s an advisory committee and the first selectman would appoint the members anyway,” Butterworth continued. “The first selectman has a curiosity about technical expertise and to get advisors. So, you know, if what we are looking for is to make sure that the first selectman considers expert opinions, then it’s probably not necessary. If what we are trying to do is to explore other purposes—so for instance, maybe this should be a forum where people in the town watch a discussion of the evolution of policy on utilities—that kind of thing would make more sense to me. I don’t think we should do it just to get more experts at the table.”
In fact, under Section 12-3 of the Town Code, it is the Board of Selectmen—not the first selectman alone—who appoints members of the Utilities Commission. So two members of that Board conceivably could move to add such an appointment to a selectmen meeting agenda, and vote in favor of it, even if the first selectman objects. The discussion about the Utilities Commission at the most recent Board of Selectmen meeting came onto the Dec. 13 agenda in just that way.