How about this for a kick-ass example of unintended consequences:
Amtrak wants to offer its rail passengers uninterrupted Wi-Fi service in Connecticut. But it's got some serious gaps along its route. So companies likeT-Mobile and AT&T propose scads of new cell/Wi-Fi towers all along Connecticut's shoreline rail corridor.
That pisses off locals who don't want their nice historic views ruined by butt-ugly towers. Which gets their state lawmakers riled up. Which results in the 2012 General Assembly unanimously passing legislation that could make it tougher to get approval for any cell/Wi-Fi towers anywhere in the state.
To top it all off, the new law is effectively an in-your-face warning to both the industry and the Connecticut Siting Council that they better start listening closer to local sentiment on this stuff or things will get even nastier.
"I think it makes a pretty strong statement to the Siting Council and applicants for cell towers," says state Rep. Patricia Widlitz, a lawmaker from the shoreline (and Amtrak corridor) town of Branford. "We really care about where these towers go."
Widlitz happens to be the co-chair of the legislature's powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, which has lots of influence over state taxes and bonding. That means when Widlitz talks about something she wants for her constituents, folks tend to listen real close.
Controversy has been swirling around the Connecticut Siting Council for years. The legislature gave the council ultimate state authority to decide where to locate stuff like telecommunications towers and other projects like wind turbines that could benefit entire regions. The idea was to get around the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome, where stubborn locals could block projects intended to help people far beyond a particular neighborhood.
That siting council power has generated tons of criticism, including claims that the council approves just about everything that industry wants — a charge council officials have always denied.
The rapid spread of 75-foot high telecommunications towers across the landscape has become a sore point with many residents. Branford First Selectman Anthony "Unk" DaRos says there are already nine towers in his shoreline town alone. He says the attitude among cell companies appears to be, "Let's throw 'em up wherever we can."
Amtrak's desire back in 2009 to get moving on Wi-Fi service to its riders accelerated the whole tower-mania thing along the shoreline, which ignited angry protests that eventually produced the bill approved this year.
Usually, when something gets through the General Assembly completely unopposed, it doesn't actually do much. This bad boy is no exception.
It sailed through the state Senate 36-0 and the state House 147-0, in part because it simply makes sure cities and towns have more detailed information about proposed cell/Wi-Fi towers, and extends the application process from 60 days to three months.
"Most of what that bill [calls for] the Siting Council is already doing," says the council's executive director, Linda Roberts. "We don't have a problem with it."
Here's the underlying reason why the legislation is getting shrugs from Roberts' outfit: the agency with the real power over siting of telecommunications towers is the Federal Communications Commission. If the Connecticut council were to reject a proposed tower and the telecommunications company could make a decent case there was a real need for that facility, the FCC would very likely approve it anyway, Roberts says.
In the past year, the siting council has given the go-ahead to at least two new telecommunications towers along the Connecticut shoreline corridor.
DaRos says one new tower, approved in Branford, is right near the railroad and close to the Guilford town line. He says that, in response to all the protests, the proposed height was cut back and that "It's going to be camouflaged as an old, antique farm water tower."
Amtrak is still struggling to close the gaps in Wi-Fi coverage along its routes in the Northeast (including Connecticut), according to a recent New York Times article. Service in some areas is so spotty that it's become a joke among irritated Internet users riding the trains.
Another new tower, also proposed for Branford, has been put on hold, and a telecommunications company is now considering putting in two shorter towers along the rail line rather than the giant one it originally wanted.
"We're trying to work with the Siting Council and the tower companies," says DaRos. "We're not trying to stop all cell towers, we're just trying to put them where they make the most sense."
That little piece of legislation that got passed is intended to give cities and towns a little more time to solve some of these NIMBY issues. And if that doesn't work out, at least the new law serves as a red flag to both state regulators and the telecommunications industry.
"I think it's a very good first step," says Widlitz, implying the likelihood of far more ominous steps down the line if this warning goes unheeded.
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