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Norwich To Build Tower: Town Bows to Voters and Ends VTel Deal 

Norwich — The Selectboard has decided to build a new 180-foot communications tower, for municipal purposes only, without the help of a private firm.

Last night’s action marks a course reversal for Town Manager Neil Fulton, who last summer negotiated with Springfield, Vt.-based broadband provider VTel to build and operate the tower on New Boston Road for its own commercial use, in exchange for allowing the town free access to install new emergency radio communications equipment.

The deal was billed as a win-win: Norwich would get the tower it needed at a minimal cost, and VTel would be able to provide high-speed Internet service in an area in sore need of it.

But many Norwich residents were uncomfortable with handing the tower over to a private operator and organized a vote at Town Meeting earlier this month to authorize the town to borrow money in order to build the tower itself. A majority of the Selectboard was initially in favor of the VTel deal, but changed its mind after residents made their sentiments clear.

The board voted last night that the tower should remain in municipal hands through the life of the bond, which could extend 10 to 20 years. Once the debt is retired, however, future Selectboards will have the authority to decide if commercial companies can use the tower.

“It’s a municipal tower for as long as we want it to be,” Selectboard Chairman Stephen Flanders said last night.

Despite a broken agreement with VTel, the company has offered Norwich access to all of its engineering and environmental studies during the past seven months.

The Selectboard agreed in August to allow VTel to build a tower near the Norwich refuse transfer station, and in exchange, the town could place antennas on the structure for police, fire and public works radio communication.

But despite the controversy that unfolded at Selectboard meetings where residents publicly bashed the VTel deal, the relationship between VTel and the town remains strong, town officials said.

“VTel was extraordinarily cooperative when I told them, as they have been all along,” Fulton said in an interview earlier this week. “When I talked with them about the fact that there had been a change about who would build the tower, they were clearly disappointed, but offered up help however they could.”

VTel President Michel Guite said his company invested $55,000 into plans for the tower, and all of that work will be handed over to Norwich so the town doesn’t have to begin the permitting process from scratch.

Although the town is breaking a letter of intent that was signed in August, Fulton said there is no threat of litigation from VTel.

Norwich will also get VTel’s completed application that it was preparing to submit to the Vermont Public Service Board. Having access to those materials will speed up the town’s permitting process, Fulton said.

During a Selectboard meeting last night, the board voted on a lease purchase agreement, which means a special Town Meeting to bond additional funds will not be needed.

Fulton estimates the project would cost $540,159, but with a grant for the police equipment, the cost to the town would decrease to about $447,000. Voters have already approved a $275,000 bond, and with a $125,000 lease-purchase agreement, with only $47,000 gap to fill. Fulton said he expects that amount to decrease, and said he should be able to find additional appropriations in the current or future budgets.

When Selectboard members arrived at last night’s meeting, they were presented with options to either enter a lease-purchase agreement or ask residents to approve a bond in late April. Fulton expressed concern that if a bond failed, then the town wouldn’t have the necessary funds to build the tower.

“This would be problematic because if the bond were to fail, we’d have equipment coming but we wouldn’t have a tower to hang it on,” Fulton said.

Resident Watt Alexander, who was a proponent in ending the agreement with VTel, urged the board to choose the quickest process.

“I really do hope you will move forward with the simplest and cheapest tower,” Alexander said. “I think for all of our sanity, a municipal tower with a lease purchase would be the simplest.”

Fulton has been given authority by the Selectboard to fast-track the process, and said he hopes to have the 45-day pre-application notice for a Certificate of Public Good filed by late April or early May.

While Selectboard members decided to back out of the deal with VTel, the email conversations between Fulton and Guite remained cordial, according to emails obtained by the Valley News through a public records request.

For example, when Guite discovered that last fall’s bond proposal had been voted down, he wrote to Fulton, “These things are never easy. I wish there was a way we could use some of our funds to help. Let’s keep looking for ways to work together.”

Earlier this month, VTel also lost two potential broadband sites at the Wardsboro Methodist Church and the West Wardsboro Yoked Parish Baptist Church, according to the Brattleboro Reformer.

The Wardsboro Methodist Church had agreed on a contract to allow VTel to place six panel antennas inside the structure’s steeple. The project had already received Public Service Board approval. But church trustees balked at the idea after residents voiced concerns.

Guite told the Brattleboro Reformer that he will continue exploring options in Wardsboro and he doesn’t plan to seek legal action.

Guite also showed no hard feelings about the broken agreement in Norwich. VTel is working to create 200 tower sites across the state after receiving federal and state grants to broaden broadband coverage. Guite called every site a “little mystery with unique individuals and issues.”

“Norwich is a wonderful town and Neil Fulton is the kind of straightforward person we really like dealing with, helping make Vermont a place we’re proud to serve. We’re very happy with the outcome,” Guite wrote in an email to the Valley News.

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