Town and Wireless Telephone Company Clash

By MANDY LOCKE

The Edgartown planning board criticized wireless phone companies Tuesday night for claiming space on the North street telephone tower.

"When is enough enough? When do we get to say enough is enough?" asked planning board chairman Norman Rankow of representatives from AT&T Wireless.

The standoff took place during a public hearing for AT&T's request to replace three antennas, add six cables and install an air conditioner and radio equipment at the North street tower site - one of only two in Edgartown.

The public hearing came two months after the wireless company began installing the new cables without the town's permission. The building inspector issued a stop-work order in July and ordered the company to apply to the planning board for such modifications.

But when AT&T's attorney Philip Posner filed into town hall Tuesday night, he met a few angry neighbors and a board unwilling to budge.

"We're the only neighborhood in Edgartown that deals with that sort of noise," said North street resident and highway superintendent Larry Mercier.

Mr. Mercier said he feared the burden will only worsen in the years to come: "Two years from now, they'll be back asking for more."

"In the past years and through different ownership, we have watched a minimally ugly structure grow into a massive monstrosity due to the overloading of antennas and cables placed strategically all over the structure. It is so massive now, that this is an unfortunate landmark hovering over the harbor when viewed from the waters off Chappaquiddick and the outer harbor," wrote Parthenia (Tuna) and Christopher Kiersted, who live 100 yards from the tower, in a letter to the planning board.

Owned by Verizon, the former New England telephone tower supports cables and antennas for five wireless companies. Eight noise-generating shelters currently surround the tower.

The noise, neighbors complain, is growing intolerable.

"In addition, we have not only had to put up with the noise of the traffic, but the noise of the air conditioners which are constantly turning on and off over the course of the day and night. Why a residential area has to suffer and put up with the constant work requests of [five] different cell companies is certainly beyond us," added the Kiersteds in their letter.

AT&T Wireless, who bought out TeleCorp and their tower permit a few years ago, did not request any major overhaul of the North street tower. For the planning board, however, the application signaled a potential for runaway requests in the years to come.

"We do have to consider what comes next. How many is too much? At some point there is a limit," Mr. Rankow said.

The Federal Communications Commission defers zoning authority for wireless-phone antennas to towns but insists that permits be issued without discrimination toward mobile phone carriers.

"Would you say everyone is at a level playing field now? You've had all the equipment you want? Everyone there is on par?" Mr. Rankow asked Mr. Posner.

Mr. Posner answered affirmatively to the series of questions.

"As a town, as long as we apply these standards across the board, we're legal," Mr. Rankow replied.

In January of 2000, the federal government mandated the planning board issue a special permit to TeleCorp Realty, a company that later sold its access and technology to AT&T Wireless. The planning board had turned down the fifth company requesting space on the tower, and federal authorities overruled the town's seeming discrimination.

The board and AT&T's counsel occasionally referenced the previous wrangling over the company's permits as well as the potential for federal intervention if the town denies permit requests.

"I'm sure they have full confidence that we'll fold our tents when they file suit," said planning board member Kenneth Southworth.

Edgartown braced itself against cellular technology a few years ago when town residents adopted a zoning bylaw prohibiting the construction of new towers. Extensive zoning regulations require companies to present "stealth" technology alternatives when applying for permits to add new antennas and cables.

"We as a town have a right to ask for alternatives. You guys need to come in here and show us the way," Mr. Rankow said.

"We need to be 110 feet tall," Mr. Posner said. "We'd have to build another structure. I don't think that's what the town envisioned."

"Did you ask us?" Mr. Rankow said.

"Was the board looking for multiple 110-foot structures?" Mr. Posner replied.

"There are alternatives out there, and we may want to look at them," Mr. Rankow said, referring to technological strides which enable cellular companies to place antennas and cables in street lamps, flagpoles, trees and church steeples.

The Edgartown planning board left Mr. Posner and AT&T Wireless engineers with the challenge of presenting stealth options to the board and continued the hearing to Oct. 29.

Mr. Posner resisted the board's approach to the AT&T application.

"You are asking us to speculate as to future technology. You're essentially penalizing AT&T for what's coming down the road. This should be looked at on a case by case basis to see how each fits with the bylaws," he said.