Proposed AT&T cell tower gets mixed reception from Chelsea residents

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    MG Ellis, of Chelsea, right, signs a petition put forward by Christiana Potter, left, of Chelsea, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, asking town and state officials to look for an alternate location for a cellphone tower that is planned to be built within 1,000 feet of her home. "I have to sell my house. ... That's how I feel," said Potter, who worries about the aesthetic impact and possible negative health effects of the tower, which will be shaped like a tree, on her children, and students at the nearby school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.) Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

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    Bob Button, 63, left, tends the counter of Button's Store in Chelsea, Vt., as customer Jack Showerman, right, of Chelsea, pays for his purchase on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Button approved the construction of an At&T cell phone tower on his land and nearby residents are petitioning for local and state officials to find another location further from homes and the school. "I should have talked to my neighbors first," said Button. "I didn't sign (the petition) but the thought crossed my mind, because I know what it's like to be the underdog." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • The site of a planned AT&T cellphone tower in Chelsea, Vt., is in a field owned by Bob Button, between his home at right, and the yard of Christiana Potter, foreground, seen on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Several sites were proposed for a tower to bring mobile phone service and assist first responders in emergencies before Button agreed to allow the tower to be built on his property. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2022 10:19:00 PM
Modified: 1/24/2022 11:35:02 AM

Christiana Potter parked in the center of Chelsea and propped a large poster up against her car. She was advertising a petition against a proposed AT&T cellphone tower and wanted to catch the attention of parents picking their children up from school on Wednesday.

By the end of the day, at least 30 people had added their signatures.

“It’s terrible that it’s so close to my house and to a school,” she said of the tower in a phone interview this week. “I’m just doing everything in my power to get the word out.”

The 140-foot tower would be built in field off Creamery Road, near Route 110, in a residential neighborhood south of Chelsea’s historic center. The property is next to Potter’s home as well as Chelsea Public School.

She said that she and her husband, Justin, would sell their home rather than raise their two children, ages 7 and 11, near a cell tower because they are concerned about the possible health effects of radiation.

In 2017, the network was awarded a contract to build 36 cell towers across Vermont with $25 million in federal funds. The towers are part of the First Responder Network Authority, also called FirstNet, which is a post-Sept. 11 program to improve communication networks for public safety workers.

AT&T has evaluated more than 20 sites across Chelsea for the proposed cell tower since May 2020. The company has already withdrawn applications to build a tower at two other sites in the town because of their potential environmental and aesthetic impacts as well as pushback from residents.

Section 248a gives the Public Utilities Commission final say over any application, so towns have limited jurisdiction over cell towers. Still, the PUC gives “substantial deference” to a town plan and town officials’ recommendations. In April, the planning commission wrote a letter opposing AT&T’s proposal to build the tower near the sheriff’s office, largely because of its aesthetic impact on the historic downtown, and AT&T withdrew its application.

Residents and town officials have until Feb. 14 to submit comments to the PUC on the project and location now being proposed. On Feb. 3 at 7 p.m., Chelsea will hold a public hearing on Zoom, according to Dickson Corbett, who chairs the Planning Commission.

“Everyone will have a chance to speak, if they wish, at the hearing,” Corbett said.

A need for coverage

Chelsea has no cell towers, and “coverage is poor at best,” according to the 2015 town plan, which commits Chelsea to facilitating the development of cell towers.

“Vermont has been behind forever, and Chelsea is even further behind than other parts of Vermont,” said Levar Cole, who chairs the Selectboard.

He does not have a position on the proposed site. Crucially for Chelsea, the tower could bring faster internet, he said.

Some residents have brought him their “complaints and lamentations” about cell coverage, he said.

“They’re afraid that if we miss this opportunity, we’re done with cell service in Chelsea for at least a while longer,” he added.

A presentation from AT&T indicates that the tower would bring cell coverage to 2 miles of Route 110, 0.6 miles of Route 113, and to surrounding residential neighborhoods currently outside the network’s coverage area.

And public safety officials said Chelsea’s sparse reception impedes their work.

“Now, when out on a call, we have to use radio through the dispatcher, or go back to the department for a landline,” said Fire Chief Alan Ackerman.

The department has not yet explored whether it would pay to access FirstNet, but Ackerman said that either way more coverage would facilitate his department’s work.

Chase Ackerman, director of First Branch Ambulance and Chief Ackerman’s cousin, said his team is unable to send EKG readings ahead of the ambulance to the hospital, leaving doctors unable to assess how serious a patient’s heart problem is before the ambulance arrives. While the tower would not cover all of the homes the ambulance serves, Chase Ackerman believes it would help.

However, some residents and town officials are uncertain about just how much coverage the tower would bring, especially in the hard-to-reach pockets in the rolling terrain outside Chelsea. And while the proposed tower would have room for three additional carriers, only AT&T would definitely use the tower.

In a statement to the Valley News, an AT&T spokesperson wrote that Chelsea was identified as a “priority location for first responder communications.”

“In Chelsea, we are continuing to work in cooperation with local and state officials as part of our site acquisition and permitting process to determine the most appropriate and effective location. We are committed to completing this project to provide critical connectivity to first responders as well as enhanced coverage to AT&T customers,” he wrote.

Where to build?

Finding the right site has been more difficult than agreeing that the town needs cell coverage.

The town plan indicates that any cell towers in Chelsea should be built away from “sensitive areas” such as “schools, historic and highly scenic areas.” Chelsea Public School rejected AT&T’s inquiry about building the tower on its property. The principal and superintendent did not respond to requests for comment.

Susan Hardin, also a member of the Planning Commission, led the campaign against the first proposed site near the Brookhaven Treatment and Learning Center because of its aesthetic and environmental impact.

“This one seems more remote in some ways,” she said. “Even though it’s right off 110, it’s not on the horizon. So that’s better.”

It is also removed from the historic district at the heart of the village, she added.

In a shift from past proposals, AT&T would camouflage the 140-foot tower as a pine tree, which would add another 5 feet in height to the structure. AT&T would also build a 200-foot extension off of Creamery Road to access the site.

Still, the tower would be visible from some parts of the historic center. Opponents also point out that it would disrupt the beauty of a scenic swimming hole on the First Branch of the White River.

Frank Keene, who has served as a cemetery commissioner in Chelsea for 33 years, is concerned about the tower’s proximity to the Highland Cemetery.

“It’s a sacred place,” he said, arguing that people who came to visit their loved ones would not want to see a cell tower.

Bob Button, the owner of Button’s Store, where he sells feed supplies, purchased the property where AT&T wants build the tower in 2008 to store road construction materials. The land is not viable farmland, and he does not foresee any demand for development, he said.

“I should’ve talked to the neighbors to see what their opinion was on it. I wasn’t trying to be pushy or rude,” Button said.

He added that he “wouldn’t be upset” if Potter is able to block the tower’s construction.

“I’ll be able to look outside my kitchen window and see it,” he said. “I’m not too thrilled about it.”

The tower would be just under 350 feet away from the First Branch, and his home sits right on the other side of the river.

Button said that he and AT&T have not yet finalized how much he would be paid in rent.

The town had hoped to find a piece of property that the town owned so that the town could take advantage of the lease money, Hardin said.

How close is too close?

But Potter argues that the tower is “too close to children and adults at school, and residents living in close proximity, and people using the surrounding area,” as she wrote in her petition.

She would be more comfortable if it was built farther from people so that they were more removed from its radiation, she said.

The electronic equipment and antennas on cell towers receive and transmit cellphone signals using radiofrequency radiation, known as RFR.

Unlike X-rays or ultraviolet rays, RFR is a form of “non-ionizing radiation” — which means it does not directly damage DNA inside cells, according to the American Cancer Society. Some studies on lab animals indicate that RFR can cause cancer in high doses, but the amount of exposure from living near a cellphone tower “typically is many times lower than the exposure of using a cellphone,” writes the cancer society.

While the organization affirms there is no current evidence that living, working, or going to school near a cellphone tower increases the risk of cancer or other health problems, it concludes that more research is needed.

“They don’t really have any proof saying that it’s safe for people to be around. That is my concern,” Potter said.

The maximum radiation from the proposed tower would be 4% to 5% of the FCC’s allowable levels, which were set in 1996, Dodge told the Selectboard on Jan. 4.

James Rooney, who bought a home in the neighborhood about a year ago, said he would also sell if the tower is built. He had planned to bring his four children, ages 6, 9, 12 and 16, to Chelsea from Massachusetts for a quieter pace of life.

Like Potter, he is uneasy about the possible health effects. He has read everything from “off-the-wall places” to “middle-of-the-road science studies,” but has found no clear answers.

“It ruined my dream,” he said. “It’s going to be literally at the end of my driveway.”

Chelsea is not the only Upper Valley town with new cell towers in the works. After extended debates over its location, AT&T will be building a new tower in the Thetford Town Forest. And Rob Taylor, Enfield’s land use and community development administrator, said that Vertex Towers, a Massachusetts-based company, has been approved to build a new tower that will bring service to Mascoma Lake.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

CORRECTION: AT&T is planning to build a new cell tower in the Thetford Town Forest. The status of the project was incorrect in a previous version of this story.




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