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Norwich Holds Off On Tower

Selectboard to Wait Until Voters Weigh In

Norwich — Bowing to political reality, the Selectboard chose to put off a decision to finalize a controversial communications tower agreement and instead will wait until after residents have a chance to weigh in at Town Meeting next week.

For the past six months, the Selectboard has been divided 3-2 in favor of allowing VTel, a Springfield, Vt.-based telecommunications company, to construct a tower on New Boston Road in exchange for letting the town use it for new emergency communications equipment. But last night, Selectman Keith Moran, who previously supported the plan, leaned in favor of public outcry.

“I think the voters have spoken,” Moran said after last night’s meeting.

Town Manager Neil Fulton had placed items on last night’s Selectboard agenda that would have finalized a site lease agreement with VTel for a communications tower. At the same time, there is a bond vote scheduled for Tuesday’s Town Meeting that essentially asks residents if they support the VTel agreement or would rather assume the cost of building the tower themselves.

If the board would have voted to finalize the VTel agreement last night, it would have made next week’s Town Meeting vote moot.

But much to residents’ surprise, the Selectboard chose to put off the decision. At the start of the meeting, before many of the 40 attendees had a chance to sit down, Selectman Stephen Flanders made a motion to delay any decision until a March 13 meeting and others agreed.

“My opinion hasn’t changed, but I think it makes sense to wait and give people a chance to vote,” said Selectman Ed Childs, who has historically voted in favor of the VTel agreement.

About an hour later, Moran gave residents even more hope by telling them that he would switch his vote. If Norwich voters are willing to bear the financial costs and risks, then that’s their decision, Moran said.

“I’m here representing them and they don’t want it and I’m willing to adhere to that,” Moran said. “I am no longer as a Selectboard member going to support the VTel tower.” When Moran finished speaking, a few residents began to clap before they were shushed by the board chairman.

Residents have never been thrilled about a nearly 200-foot tower that would be built on New Boston Road, near the town refuse transfer station. The uproar grew last fall when the town signed a letter of intent with VTel. The agreement would allow VTel to construct and pay for the tower, and in return, the town could use the tower for fire, police and public works communication.

But a group of Norwich residents have battled the Selectboard over the issue since the agreement with VTel was struck, and have now petitioned for a $275,000 bond article that would pay for the tower. The article is not legally binding, but proponents say that if it passes, it would demonstrate widespread opposition against the VTel deal and a willingness of residents to assume the cost of the tower.

Resident Watt Alexander criticized Fulton for trying to force through an agenda item before voters had a chance to vote on the bond next week.

“Resorting to a now familiar pattern, (Fulton is) creating a sense of imminent crisis bolstered by doomsday scenarios suggesting this decision is simply too important to be left to voters,” Alexander wrote in a letter to the Valley News this week.

But Fulton defended himself last night by again explaining the need for the tower. During a department head meeting last week, he explained, Fire Chief Stephen Leinoff was in Tracy Hall when an emergency medical call came through. There were two pagers in the room, and one didn’t go off. The second one made a scratchy noise that was hard to understand.

“That’s the context that I’m working in and why I have a sense of urgency,” Fulton said. “People say I’m rushing things, but I have a sense of urgency to provide the best service we can.”

Residents and Selectboard members inquired about the pros and cons if a VTel contract was terminated. Fulton said he expects the VTel tower to be finished by spring of 2014, but if the town decides to start from scratch, it could add an additional 12 to 18 months until completion of the project, Fulton said.

As for costs, Fulton has previously said that without the VTel contract, the tower could cost the town between $335,000 to $475,000, depending on grants.

A few voters urged the Selectboard to choose the most expedient option, while the majority urged the Selectboard to vote against VTel.

“I don’t think you’ve done a great job explaining why you think this is a great deal for the town,” resident Geoffrey Vitt said. “They’re not going to vote for it just because you say you want it to happen.”

But it’s still unknown how residents will vote at Town Meeting, and whether Moran will stick with his promised dissenting vote against VTel. Some have said that bond article is confusing because it doesn’t ask residents if they support VTel. Instead, it asks voters if they support a $275,000 bond for a communication tower.

Selectwoman Linda Cook stressed that the 40 residents in the room needed to spread the word to other voters that a ‘yes’ vote for the $275,000 bond would mean that voters don’t agree with the VTel agreement and they’re willing to pay for the tower themselves, while a ‘no’ vote means that they are fine with the VTel agreement.

“We have a week’s time to communicate the understanding of what this bond stands for and let the people decide where they want to go in March. You all have a voice,” Cook said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.