A bill introduced by State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D-Branford) that would place restrictions on cell tower siting has been unanimously approved by the Energy and Technology Committee and has gained extra teeth thanks to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. It now goes to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Reed, State Rep. Pat Widlitz (D-Branford and Guilford), and State Rep. Deb Heinrich, (D- Guilford and Madison) are spearheading legislation that would update the way the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) grants approval for cell tower placement.
“Our original bill now also includes a provision recommended by the attorney general that penalizes providers who submit deceptive applications by giving the Siting Council the power to fine them and to give that money to opposing parties such as neighborhoods or towns who really don’t the economic resources to wage legal battle after legal battle against cell towers,” Reed said.
In testimony before the committee last month, Blumenthal said a cell tower applicant failed to inform the Siting Council that Blumenthal had rejected a cell tower request because it would violate a Department of Agriculture easement on a specific piece of property. “Ultimately the petition was withdrawn but a citizens group had incurred significant expenses,” he said. Then the Siting Council rejected the citizen’s request for legal fees and expenses because there was no proceeding before it.”
Blumenthal told the committee that “the Siting Council should have the specific authority to sanction any deliberate misrepresentation or omission of material facts by a petition. As this cell tower case indicates, the Siting Council lacks an effective deterrence to falsehoods and failures to disclose critical information. Further, citizen groups should have the ability to seek compensation for their expenses associated with these misrepresentations and omissions. “
The provision would authorize the Siting Council to impose civil fines when it determines that a petitioner has misrepresented or omitted relevant facts.
Reed’s proposed legislation is critical in Branford because eight separate requests for new cell towers have surfaced in recent months. Branford currently has nine cell towers within its boundaries. The CSC has already given preliminary approval for a 125-foot tower on Pine Orchard Road.
Residents in the Pine Orchard neighborhood fought the placement to no avail. However, one resident said she planned to sue. Proposals in Stony Creek and Short Beach have rankled neighbors in those communities.
Reed, who sits on the Energy and Technology Committee, heard testimony last week in support of the bill.
“I was so proud of the people who came to testify in support of this bill before the E & T Committee,” Reed said. “Everybody contributed eloquent, fact-based observations about how the Siting Council process has lost its way. My E & T colleagues really listened and were most impressed.”
Among those testifying were Branford First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos who has been fighting for a comprehensive plan for tower placement on the shoreline.
“The window for municipal input is on a case-by-case basis,” DaRos testified. “Few towns, if any, are equipped to track, study, research and testify before the Siting Council on application after application. And like many towns, most of our town operations are directed by hundreds of town residents who volunteer on dozens and dozens of town board and commissions; we call them our ‘night shift’ because they make the town run.
“All of that local energy and commitment remains untapped when it comes to approving the installation of a metal structure that may reach more than 15 stories and be visible for miles across town for a service that may not be needed, and provided by technology that may not be the best,” DaRos told the committee.
Branford has formed a special advisory panel to formulate a regional plan for tower placement, and is in the process of hiring a consultant.
“There is no master plan with municipal input regarding need and service level, as well as no consideration given to tower placement on a regional basis,” DaRos testified. “This is especially noteworthy when you consider how these towers effectively litter our shoreline when viewed from the water. This is not how we should be cherishing our resources and legacy.”
At a Democratic Town Committee Meeting last week, DaRos raised another issue.”You know what bothered me more than anything about these towers. “It was not the technology. It was dividing neighborhood against neighborhood and I think that was probably the worst thing. And I will tell this, I would throw the cell phone away before I would allow that to happen.”
Also testifying last week in Hartford was Branford resident and technology writer Tim Snider, who told the committee that less intrusive options are available. “For instance, the city of Yonkers opted for antennae display systems the size of golf bags that can be attached to existing utility poles. There are much smaller, smarter choices than cell towers,” Snider said.
Reed said that those testifying against the bill, including representatives of Verizon and AT&T, admitted under testimony that “all the easy cell tower sites have already been developed,” and that is why there are so many efforts to erect towers in neighborhoods and scenic areas.
“I asked the AT&T representative whether, in his opinion, we would ever have enough cell towers,” Reed said. “He got quiet for a moment and then admitted that the demands just keep growing and growing. I said, ‘In other words, no?’ He looked down and did not respond.”
The legislation that was approved by the committee would:
—Require the Siting Council to keep informed about the latest technological options and that those options be factored into the decision-making process.
—Encourage regional cooperation by giving town zoning boards the right to participate in the siting process if their town chooses to join in a regional plan.
—Require public disclosure of any master plans for upgrading coverage in geographic areas, such as Amtrak’s corridor.