Wednesday, town officials from throughout the Northeast Kingdom gathered at Lyndon State College to address the future of telecommunication in Vermont.
The Northeastern Vermont Development Association organized what regional planner Annalei Babson called "the first of many forums," in response to an avalanche of applications for telecommunications facilities. NVDA, along with a panel of representatives from the state, presented officials with a new, controversial issue and a wealth of information.
The center of that controversy is the ability of municipalities to regulate the construction of towers used for wireless communication. These towers are the most significant aspect of what Babson formally termed, "telecommunications facilities." That significance can overwhelm local officials and residents; the towers can stand at more than 100 feet.
Federal regulations, however, protect the growth of the wireless industry and force municipalities to address the construction of towers carefully.
Last night, Jon Groveman, an attorney with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, was on hand to explain what kind of care is needed.
In accordance with the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, municipalities cannot prohibit, or effectively prohibit, the construction of telecommunication facilities. The act also prevents regulation based on radio frequency emission safety.
That does not mean, said Groveman, that officials cannot regulate those facilities. Most importantly, a facility has to meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards to be protected by the act.
While the existence of the facilities is protected, Groveman explained, it is a locality & #039;s responsibility to regulate the placement, construction and remodeling of facilities.
In order for that to take place, localities need to address the issue formally. Groveman outlined the three options that are available to officials. Telecommunications facilities can be addressed in a town plan, a town & #039;s bylaws, or, especially in the absence of zoning, an independent ordinance.
Each of these options gives a town or city the important opportunity to make specific rules to govern telecommunications facilities. Still, it is a process that Groveman said "is gonna take a lot of time."
Matters that might be addressed, other than zoning issues, include safety precautions. Regardless of the quality of construction, there is always the possibility that a tower might fall or attract lightning.
Another issue that could affect Vermonters is the formation of ice at the vertical limits of a tower. High winds can carry pieces of ice long distances. In response, Janet Newton of the EMR Network recommended that a "fall-zone" of 21/2 times the tower & #039;s height extend in all directions around a facility.
This, among other things, has many localities worried about the impact of an archipelago of towers. The towers are most likely to follow the paths of Vermont & #039;s interstate highways, but as David Lunnie, the zoning administrator for Concord, testified, Route 2 is also on the list.
Babson divulged a number of ways to reduce the visual impact of the facilities by camouflaging them. That is just one of the many ways that municipalities can regulate the facilities.
With large telecommunication corporations, like Cellular One, in the arena, there is a potential for local officials to become awestruck. "The stakes are a little bit higher," Groveman said.
Groveman concluded his advice by reminding officials that the large corporations are "no different from any other applicant."
Selectmen and planning commissions, Babson hinted, should also work to anticipate the growth of technology. Personal Communications Services (PCS) have already made their way into the Burlington area, and may eventually spread throughout the state.
The PCS digital service operates at a higher frequency that doesn & #039;t transmit as far as cellular frequencies. Because of the reduced distance, the service requires a greater number of towers. Those PCS towers could initiate another wave of facility construction.
In the Academic Center & #039;s Burke Mountain Room, Wednesday & #039;s forum was the first step in educating the Northeast Kingdom about telecommunication facilities.