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Cell Phone Service Coming to Haddam?

By Meghan Peterson

At their Oct. 6, 2016 meeting, the town’s Planning and Zoning (P & Z) Commission held an extensive discussion on potential cell phone service tower sites in Haddam.

As Haddam residents may be aware – especially for those who travel along the busy Route 154 (Saybrook Road) corridor, cell phone service is spotty at best. Dropped calls throughout this cellular “dead zone” are common. Over the years, lack of consistent cell phone service has posed issues for residents, travelers, and first responders in Haddam.

The matter of cell phone service tower sites was central on the discussion table. Town Planner, Liz Glidden, explained that the town has been approached by a company (Homeland Towers) interested in developing a cell tower plan that would consist of building two towers – possibly a third one as well in Tylerville. The company would like to lease property at the Fire House on Saybrook Road; a vacant lot at the intersection between Jail Hill Road and Quarry Hill Road; and a third private property in Tylerville. Homeland Towers would then lease the property from the Town and bid it out to service carriers. Glidden noted that the issue is before the P&Z Commission because at any time the Town wants to lease, buy, or sell property, it must go through this multi-step process. Glidden added that P&Z will be discussing a referral by the Board of Selectman (BOS) to P&Z this evening. Then, P&Z will make a motion to approve (or not) a report on the matter and send it to the BOS. At that point, the BOS will hold discussion on the P&Z findings and send the matter to a Town Meeting.

Ray Vergati, site development manager for Homeland Towers, was on hand to discuss the proposed sites and zoning process – as well as to answer any questions Commission members had for him. Vergati began his talk by saying that Homeland Towers is a tower developer based in Danbury, CT. Homeland Towers works “extensively” throughout CT and NY, according to Vergati. As a developer, Homeland Towers builds infrastructure and cell towers. Vergai noted that he has been doing this for eighteen years and that he was born and raised in state. As a frequent visitor to the Haddam area, Vergati explained that he is very familiar “with the issues at hand” regarding cell coverage problems.

Vergati said that what Homeland Towers is proposing is a “comprehensive coverage plan from the Tylerville section all the way up to the Volunteer Fire House on 439 Saybrook Road). Vergati said that two town properties are being considered, along with a third site – a private property – in Tylerville. According to Vergati, the goal as a tower developer is to “lease three locations, market them out to carriers, get them to come on board with [Homeland] Towers, and go into a full zoning process with the Connecticut Siting Council.” The website of the Connecticut Siting Council describes the state government panel as “responsible for balancing the need for adequate and reliable public utility services at the lowest reasonable cost to consumers with the need to protect the environment and ecology of the state. The council generally has jurisdiction over the siting of electric transmission lines and electric substations with a design capacity of 69-kilovolts or more…including telecommunications facilities.”

Homeland Towers conducted a site visit the week prior to the October 6 P&Z meeting and developed site plans for the 2 town sites to be discussed. A P&Z Commission member asked for confirmation on clarity as to the fact that the Commission is not voting on or approving any plans/designs but rather is going to send a report to the BOS. Town Planner Liz Glidden confirmed that by saying that “what is on the table” is a vote to send a report that “supports or not” findings to the BOS.

Vergati expanded on this moment to outline the plan in the following way:

  • Homeland Towers presents site plans to P&Z
  • If sites are leased, Homeland Towers goes to a carrier (or carriers) to go with all 3 sites to offer “contiguous coverage along Rt. 154 corridor”
  • Carrier(s) signs lease with Homeland Towers
  • Homeland Towers returns to Haddam and files a “technical report” – an application
  • At that time, Haddam will have option to: a) within 90 days, hold public hearing (strictly for presenting plan for residents to make comments on application); b) waive rights to 90 day technical report and go directly to Connecticut Siting Council
  • Homeland Towers and a carrier (for example, Verizon or AT&T) would go to the Connecticut Siting Council as co-applicants
  • Return to Haddam, public hearing will be held
  • On the day of the hearing, Homeland Towers will float a helium balloon at different heights on the sites; a company hired by Towers will drive around and photo document where the balloon is visible and where it is not visible from (the balloon simulates height of cell tower); Connecticut Siting Council conducts a site walk on the proposed properties; Haddam residents have opportunity to “weigh in, intervene on application, make comments for public record,” according to Vergati.

Vergati added that in speaking with Haddam’s public safety personnel, this process will implement “critical infrastructure” for public safety, fire, police, and EMS – and that they are very excited for this development so that they can place public safety equipment on the sites. Vergati also emphasized that the town “will have a say” when it comes to the CT Siting Council – that the townspeople can have their input as to the pole design and preferred height.

That said, Vergati noted that it is the burden of the carrier to prove to the Siting Council that the tower height is necessary and appropriate. Ultimately, the Siting Council approves or denies applications. Even here, however, Vergati made clear that the Council “takes very serious consideration” of the town’s say and that townsfolk “have a lot of weight” on the matter – particularly because Haddam is the landlord in these instances.

In a “perfect world,” Vergati estimates that the process – from lease to obtaining of a building permit from Haddam – will take nine to twelve months. Vergati said that the Siting Council typically takes about nine months. Vergati said that the Siting Council has been “doing this since the late 90s” and knows exactly what kinds of questions to ask and what to do.

Vergati explained that the two sites have a lot of things going for them as far as location and elevation. In addition, Vergati noted that with respect to the town sites, carriers have previously approached Haddam in the past to bring service. Vergati counts this as a “positive sign” and validation that desire is there to bring service to the Firehouse and Jail Hill/Quarry Hill Road sites. For whatever reasons, however, Vergati said that the Town did not strike up a deal eight or nine years ago in terms of the Fire House.

Detailed discussion and questions ensued about the Fire House site and the site at the intersection of Jail Hill Road and Quarry Hill Road. Topics such as elevation, visibility, pole design, and fencing enclosures, and noise were raised and covered. Homeland Towers will not and does not construct poles above one hundred ninety-nine feet Towers can also paint or make the pole look like a pine tree – or whatever the town prefers and in conjunction with what the Siting Council takes into consideration. Baffles and sound blankets can be used to muffle and attenuate the noise caused by generators carriers install on the sites. Vergati said that he thinks engineers weigh decibel levels as something akin to a babbling brook at fifty feet. Homeland Towers will also conduct Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) analyses for the sites to ensure that the towers/sites do not pose hazards to aviation. The Goodspeed Airport is five miles from the Firehouse site; three miles from the Jail Hill site.

The P&Z Commission motioned to send a report to the BOS for Homeland Towers for the purpose of “constructing and operating and cellular telephone communications tower and related facilities” on 1) the 439 Saybrook Road site (a seventy-five foot by seventy-five foot site at the Volunteer Firehouse) and 2) the Jail Hill site (a fifty-five foot by one hundred foot site). The Commission approved both motions.

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