PLAINFIELD — The Select Board this week moved to oppose the construction of a telecommunications tower that the Vermont Telephone Co. is trying to erect in Plainfield.
The company is planning to build the tower on Upper Road, about 2,000 feet from a similar tower owned by Cloud Alliance, a local provider of broadband service. Instead of building a tower so close to an existing one, the board wants VTel to put its equipment on the Cloud Alliance tower.
Will Colgan, chairman of the town’s Planning Commission, told the board Monday he is recommending the commission write to VTel saying the tower does not fit with the town plan or zoning requirements. Colgan said the town plan and zoning regulations require new telecommunication antennas be located either on existing structures or, if a new tower is necessary, be built so that other companies can co-locate on the new tower in the future. VTel’s proposed tower would do neither.
“Because the VTel tower is so close to the Cloud Alliance tower, which essentially provides the same service in the same area of location, we want to basically ask that they try to locate on that tower,” Colgan said.
VTel met with the Planning Commission on Dec. 2 to discuss the company’s proposal. Colgan said he learned at the meeting that the tower VTel wants to build would be too small to host another wireless broadband or cellphone service provider’s equipment in the future. He said the proposed VTel tower at best might be able to support a fire department dispatch antenna.
Colgan said he also learned that while VTel did try to negotiate with Cloud Alliance to co-locate on the existing tower, the negotiations didn’t get very far.
“They really didn’t pursue the ability to co-locate. ... They didn’t tell us, ‘We cannot locate on Cloud Alliance,’” Colgan said.
Michael Birnbaum, general manager of Cloud Alliance, said Tuesday that VTel approached his company in the spring about co-locating. He said Cloud Alliance offered to rent space on the tower at fair market value.
“They didn’t want to pay that,” Birnbaum said. “They didn’t consider (the offer) fair market value. The negotiations didn’t go very far.”
At the meeting Monday night, Colgan also talked about costs being a potential issue for VTel. He said the company would be using federal stimulus money to build the new tower and may have been averse to paying rent instead.
“They didn’t say outright, but that must have some impact on their decisions to go ahead and build a new tower,” he said.
Select Board member Bram Towbin, who has been outspoken on his concerns with the way the company has been handling communications with the town about the project, bristled when the issue of VTel using federal money for the project came up.
“The thing that I find most troubling about this process is that VTel is not doing this out of the goodness of their own heart,” Towbin said. “This is taxpayer money. I did not like the fact that we’re not privy to what their negotiation is with Cloud Alliance. So they’re saying, ‘Oh, well, we couldn’t come to a business arrangement with Cloud Alliance and it’s cheaper for us to build a new tower, do all that stuff and not co-locate anybody else’ with essentially our tax dollars. That’s troubling to me.”
Diane Guité, vice president of business development for VTel, emailed her response to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. In terms of the Cloud Alliance tower, Guité wrote that VTel has specific business terms that need to be met in order for the tower to be economically feasible for the company. Guité said the company and Cloud Alliance could not agree on rent.
She also addressed the federal money that Colgan referred to Monday.
“The grant we received from the federal government is for capex (capital expenditures) only; run-rate operational costs are 100% born by VTel on the tower in Plainfield, and on our entire network. We’re not AT&T or Verizon; we’re a rural Vermont-based telecom company, and our goal is to provide low cost high speed Internet to Vermonters. We are committed to bringing affordable high speed Internet to the town of Plainfield and look forward to finding a constructive way to do so.”
She also wrote that if additional carriers were to use the VTel tower, it would need to be taller, requiring a deeper ground disturbance and more negative visual impact.
“We chose to only build a 90ft tower, to minimize the visual and environmental impact,” Guité wrote. “In terms of what is best for VTel (at least from a commercial standpoint), I’d love to construct a tower with room for tenants, and rent space on this tower, but the feedback we’ve generally received from VT communities is that a lower, more discrete tower is preferable, even if it only accommodates one single carrier. If this isn’t the case, and the town prefers we build a more robust tower, we are completely open to doing so.”
Guité did not answer a question as to whether VTel would still be willing to negotiate a deal with Cloud Alliance.
The company is nearing the end of a 45-day comment period, which began Oct. 31, during which local bodies and others who would be affected by the tower can give feedback about the project before VTel takes the proposal to the state’s Public Service Board to request a certificate of public good.
The board moved Monday to co-sign a letter from the Planning Commission, which will be drafted by Colgan and sent to VTel, saying the proposed tower does not come in line with the town plan or zoning rules. The board also moved to write its own letter to the PSB saying the same thing, and Colgan said the Planning Commission would send a letter echoing those sentiments to the PSB as well.
The 45-day comment period ends Monday. Once VTel applies for a certificate of public good, there is a subsequent 21-day period when further comments may be submitted to the PSB.
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