With a room full of residents in attendance, the Milan Planning Board voted on April 2 to close an 8-month-long public hearing on a proposed Verizon cell tower on Academy Hill Road and then determined the tower would have no adverse environmental impact on the town.
About 40 members of the public attended the meeting, half of whom spoke passionately for and against the proposed 150-foot tower. The meeting concluded with the negative environmental impact declaration by the board.
When board chair Joan Wyant asked for updates on the proposal, Verizon attorney Scott Olson said, “I just want to state the obvious. This application has been pending for about a year.”
“The board has been diligently reviewing it,” he continued, “and I think the project has evolved quite significantly, especially in the sense that the board is now looking for us to install a pine tree stealth tower, and we are in agreement to do that should we receive all the approvals.”
Olson went on to address the year-long public outcry in Milan over the cell tower plan:
“We have discussed the need [for cell service] over and over again. The record speaks for itself. We have professional consultants who have confirmed the need. … Some people have said, ‘Well, you’re only trying to cover a small, tiny gap.’ Any statement to that effect is completely not true. We’re talking about more than a mile—4 miles—this is not a small gap. It’s probably one of the most significant gaps that I’ve been involved with in about 16 or 17 years of doing this.”
Board member James Jeffreys referenced the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 in his response to Olson: “We as a board cannot discriminate against one carrier over another, so just because we might have excellent AT&T coverage in an area, that in itself does not give us the ability to preclude [a company] —whether it be Sprint or Verizon or whoever else it might be—from putting up a facility in that area.”
According to Jeffreys, town code does allow the board to encourage a new carrier to share an existing tower site with another carrier or several others. Jeffreys added that Verizon plotted computer models that showed such a collocation option would improve, but not complete, Verizon coverage in Milan.
“I’m still anxious to hear what people have to say, but we’ve been kicking [this proposal] around for well over a year,” Jeffreys said.
In the public comments that followed, residents echoed Olson’s emphasis on the necessity of cell service, but also expressed considerable frustration and dismay over the visual impact of the tower on the bucolic Milan countryside, the potential for reduced property values, and even safety concerns voiced by property owners adjacent to the proposed tower site, where an access road has already been constructed.
Doug Raelson of Willow Glen Road began his comments by explaining that town zoning ordinance caps tower height at 100 feet, unless the applicant can demonstrate that “offsite views of the facility will be ‘de minimis,’” which he defined as “small, minor, insignificant [or] negligible.”
“In our town, which we’ve all come to love because it’s so beautiful and pastoral, … how has this been determined—that the visual impact of this will be ‘de minimis’?” he asked the board.
After the public was finished, the board discussed what to do.
New board member Nathaniel Charny, appointed in January, thought the board should wait on a decision. “There’s a consensus that cell phone coverage is important. I think that’s clear across the board—nobody’s denying that,” he said. “The concerns that I hear from the public are really about: Are we allowing more than is necessary to solve the problem that everyone in the community agrees exists?”
He added, “I agree with the notion that we should just leave this public hearing open, provided the process allows us to leave it open while ZBA deals with it. This is a gigantic thing to happen. It has a huge impact on people’s lives. … I feel kind of strongly that we keep the public fully engaged by keeping the hearing open. Given the magnitude of what’s happening, I think that’s appropriate. So, I’ll vote no on the motion, and I encourage other people to, as well.”
The motion that followed reflected the board’s ambivalence: with one member absent, the vote to close the public hearing passed by a vote of four to two. The board then approved a negative declaration of environmental effects.
Verizon will now need to obtain site plan and special use permit approval from the planning board and a height variance for the tower from the Zoning Board of Appeals.