Vermont is the largest per-capita recipient of federal funds for broadband expansion, with much of the money going to the Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Company (VTel) to build a statewide wireless broadband network.
The build-out is aided by a state law that makes it possible to circumvent local zoning laws to erect telecommunications towers — and Calais is the latest community to confront the tension between local control and state’s desire to expand broadband service.
VTel’s wireless broadband system depends on a network of 169 sites. In many cases, the company has used existing towers and structures, but in Calais the company wants to erect its own 140-foot tower.
Several dozen Calais residents turned out Wednesday night to listen to a presentation by VTel representatives.
No one who spoke supported the project.
They raised a number of concerns, including whether the town needs additional broadband service and the impact of the tower on pristine views and property values. Many were critical of the process itself.
Under a state statute designed to speed broadband expansion in Vermont, telecommunications companies are not required to go through the Act 250 and local zoning process when they erect the towers, which means the projects aren’t subject to local review.
The projects are approved by the Public Service Board, which considers a town's plan. Among the criteria the board also weighs are aesthetic and environmental concerns, but it was explained the bar is set relatively high for the board to reject a project.
Select board member John Brabant says the statute essentially renders residents powerless in this and similar projects that may be proposed in the future.
“It’s going to be VTel’s competitor with yet another technology and they’re going to be over here, then it’s going to be somebody else with some kind of new groovy thing. There’s going to be 50 reasons why we’re going to circumvent every public process,” said Brabant. “This is a bad track we’re on.”
The statute, known as 248a which was first passed by the Legislature eight years ago, will have to be renewed by lawmakers in 2017.
Public Service Department Telecommunications Director Jim Porter told the crowd it’s in the interests of the state and the telecom companies to take local concerns into account.
“We certainly have an interest, as do the legislators that we work with, in seeing the process be as fair as possible,” he said.
Porter says the department sometimes recommends that applications be altered and often works with companies to make changes to projects.
Elizabeth Kohler, an attorney representing VTel, says the statute works by providing a forum for local concerns.
“We take very seriously siting appropriately and I think we have a very good track record of working with communities, modifying locations as need be,” she said. “That we’re here tonight, I think, is a demonstration of this collaborative process.”
But residents said the fact remains there is no local review of projects, and they argued that the truncated application process for telecom towers doesn’t allow time for a community to respond.
Last year VTel withdrew an application for a tower in neighboring Plainfield. At the time, company president Michel Guite was quoted as saying, “If the town says we can’t be here, we say, ‘OK, we’ll go somewhere else.’”
Asked about the statement, VTel's Gordon Mathews told Calais residents there isn’t time to find an alternate site because of the federal deadline for completing the project.
“There are instances where we have modified a project or walked away from a project, particularly in Plainfield. We don’t plan on doing that here,” Mathews said.
He said alternate locations to the Calais site have already been looked at and none would work as well.
For Calais resident Marge Garfield and others, the frustrations were twofold: The tower itself — and the process.
“Everyone in this room thinks that the process does nothing for us, that we’re muted, that we’re muzzled,” said Garfield as the meeting ended.
Despite the reservations about the process, the Calais select board plans to pursue party status in the Public Service Board’s deliberations.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Gordon Mathews' name.