Valley News – AT&T dials up fourth plan for cellphone tower in Chelsea

Published: 8/11/2022 11:04:45 PM

Modified: 8/11/2022 11:01:30 PM

CHELSEA — In its fourth attempt at bringing cellphone service to customers in Chelsea, provider AT&T has filed a petition with the Vermont Public Utilities Commission for the construction of a cellphone tower on Windswept Lane off Route 110.

The petition, filed by the company on Monday, says that through the construction of a 140-foot tower, cellphone service in the area will be “substantially improved” for AT&T users and will cover “90% more total area and roadways, 73% more residences and 21% more business establishments.”

Since starting its search in May 2020, AT&T has looked at 20 sites in Chelsea, but had to withdraw three previous applications to build a tower in town after residents raised environmental and aesthetic concerns.

The proposed tower this go-round would be built on land owned by longtime Chelsea residents Sarah and Doc Gordon. The Gordons have lived in the house Sarah grew up in for more than 30 years. The couple was initially contacted by AT&T about building a tower on their property about a decade ago and told the company they weren’t interested. But when VTel, a Springfield-based internet provider, made them an offer that they thought was more reasonable, the Gordons tried their hand at “tower hosting” on their land.

When AT&T returned to the area two years ago, Gordon said that this time he and his wife reached out to them after watching the company’s proposals get shot down again and again. “We already have all the infrastructure in place,” Gordon said, referring to the equipment that accompanies the VTel tower on his property. “And this is the first site proposed by AT&T that’s not in town. I think that’s the key.”

Gordon said that while he “doesn’t trust anybody in the corporate world,” he is pleased with his experience negotiating with AT&T’s lawyers. “Now we’re putting it out of our minds, and we’re letting it take its course.”

Chelsea resident Susan Hardin was a leader in the initial pushback against AT&T in 2020 when the company first proposed a tower site behind the Brookhaven Treatment and Learning Center, a boys school near her own property. After meeting resistance from residents, the company moved on to a site behind the Orange County Sheriff’s office on Route 113 and then to a spot on Creamery Road next to Chelsea Public School. Both proposals were also shot down.

“My objection was that the hills surrounding Chelsea are virgin,” Hardin said. “We have suffered so many losses in our town: The school has moved, people along (Route) 110 are moving out, we don’t have a grocery store, and so it’s like a ghost town. And the one thing that is wonderful about Chelsea is its bucolic nature.”

Still, she thinks the most recently proposed site is the best option put forward yet by AT&T. “There’s already one, so there might as well be two,” Hardin said. “And at least it’s not right in town.”

While Hardin sees a cell tower as detracting from Chelsea’s natural landscape, AT&T sees it as a necessary addition to keeping the town on the map. In 2017, the network was awarded a contract to build 36 cell towers across Vermont with $25 million in federal funds in an effort to improve communication networks for public safety workers.

But after the whiplash of the past two years, Chase Ackerman, director of First Branch Ambulance — which covers Chelsea, Tunbridge and Washington — said that he’s learned not “to get excited about things if they’re not actually going to happen.”

Increased service would put first responders in better contact with hospitals, allowing them to transmit electrocardiogram results directly from the ambulance as they are received and making it possible to receive earlier medical advice from doctors, Ackerman said.

“There’s no coverage all the way up the valley, it’s pretty much dead from South Tunbridge over to Barre (Vt.),” Ackerman said, while also noting that there are other areas in the state with more pressing coverage needs. “It makes it difficult here in Chelsea, but it doesn’t make it so we can’t do our job.”

The Public Utilities Commission has the final say on proposals for cell towers in Vermont, but it leans heavily on input from towns as well as guidance from the town plan. Until Aug. 29, the proposal from AT&T is open for public comment, which can be made at the following link: https://epuc.vermont.gov/?q=node/32.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at 603-727-3242 or [email protected]

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