Chilmark on board with USCG Rescue 21 antenna
A request by the United States Coast Guard to increase the height of a radio antenna on Peaked Hill as part of a multi-million dollar nationwide overhaul of its outdated distress and response radio system sparked a passionate debate at the Chilmark annual town meeting Monday night. Voters approved the measure nearly unanimously, but not before all had had their say.
There was no argument that the tower would dramatically improve public safety on the water, only that it should be placed somewhere not as pristine as the top of Peaked Hill, and preferably not in Chilmark.
Some Chilmark voters, unhappy at the thought of a higher tower marring the landscape, asked the Coast Guard to consider Tisbury, Edgartown, or the Elizabeth Islands.
The tide of debate took a dramatic turn when long-time Chilmark town moderator Everett Poole, whose working life was spent as a fisherman and fish dealer, handed his gavel to the town clerk and stepped from the podium to address the voters.
A total of 113 of the town's 805 registered voters, 14 percent, turned out on a windy, wet night to attend to town business.
Yesterday, town voters went to the polls to elect town offices and vote on three Proposition 2.5 ballot questions.
There were two contests on the ballot, a three-way race for two seats on the finance advisory committee and a two-way race for one seat on the board of health. Voters were also asked to raise taxes in order to pay an additional $78,156 in education costs and pick up a share of the cost for the Dukes County's pest control program and the health care access program.
Following a presentation that honored Danny Bryant for serving 27 years as the town's director of emergency management, voters moved briskly through the proposed $6,681,399 operating budget for fiscal year 2009 that begins on July 1.
Voters approved the budget without dissent. The momentum carried over to the warrant articles, as voters marched mostly in unison up to article 20, a lengthy five-page revised town bylaw governing wireless communication towers.
"I will read it if anyone in town meeting wishes to have it read," said Mr. Poole. There were no takers.
"Could someone explain why we need this," asked voter Edward Miller.
Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker briefly explained the town's interest in exploring a distributed antennae system (DAS), which relies on a series of small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for that specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. DAS provides an alternative to high wireless towers, he said, and the existing bylaw is out of date. "This is a bylaw that will enable us to keep up with technology over time," Mr. Parker said.
The bylaw sets up a plan review committee with the authority to issue a special permit for wireless communication facilities and equipment. Included in the proposed bylaw is language that exempts any equipment or facility erected by the town, state and federal government for public safety communications purposes.
Warren Doty, chairman of the selectmen, proposed an amendment to delete the exemption. Mr. Doty said the town needed to follow its own bylaws.
Mr. Parker questioned whether the town could make the state or federal government submit to the town process. They would not be subject to town approval, said acting town counsel Michael Goldsmith.
Tim Carroll, executive secretary and assistant fire chief, asked if the amendment meant the fire department would need to seek approval to erect a whip antenna on the station house.
"Yes, said Mr. Doty. "I think the town has to follow our bylaws."
Noting that the attorney general, who reviews all bylaws, would reject an extension of town authority, Mr. Parker pressed Mr. Doty to maintain the state and federal public safety exemption.
Mr. Doty said it was up to the state and feds to decide if they were going to follow the town process. "I would like to leave the amendment as it stands," he said. The voters passed the amendment.
Steve Bernier questioned the health risks and the differences between DAS and a cell tower. He suggested a study be done. A woman voter referred to information showing that wireless signals posed a cancer risk.
Mr. Parker said federal law prohibits the town from applying health considerations.
The Telecommunication Act of 1996 bars towns from arbitrarily rejecting an application to site a wireless facility or citing the perceived environmental or health effects of radio frequency emissions. While the law empowers towns to control where the facilities are sited, town governments are not granted the right to say no to any carrier.
Several voters spoke in favor of improved wireless service in a town know for poor reception. Peter Simon said he has been waiting for improved service and noted that communities across the country provide wireless service from towers and DAS installations without apparent ill effect.
"The public safety part of this should be taken into consideration as well," said Scott McDowell, a volunteer firefighter.
Selectmen Frank Fenner described a tour of Nantucket's DAS system. He said town leaders were very pleased with the system.
Following a failed attempt by Jonathan Mayhew to add an amendment that would have required the plan review committee to seek a town meeting vote, the article, which needed a two-thirds majority, was approved with two no votes.
In whose backyard
Voters moved quickly through the remaining articles. For a moment it appeared as though voters were talked out. In fact, they were only warmed up.
The last article was a Coast Guard request to replace an existing 48-foot radio tower and support equipment on Peaked Hill, with a 113-foot tower that, they said, would be a vital part of a new response radio system known as "Rescue 21," designed to enable the Coast Guard to immediately fix the location of a distress call, no matter how short its duration, out to 20 miles offshore. Coast Guard officials said Peaked Hill is the best location because of its height, location, and the presence of an existing facility.
Mr. Poole read the article. He asked for discussion, and hearing no response, called for a vote. Ayes appeared to outnumber the nays.
Shocked by the article's quick dispatch, some voters called for discussion. Mr. Poole said he had asked for discussion and nobody raised a hand, but he agreed to a discussion nonetheless.
The debate ebbed and flowed. Warren Doty was the first to speak. He described Rescue 21 as a tremendous advancement, but he said he was concerned about doing something that would detract from the beauty and recreational value of Peaked Hill.
Mr. Doty asked the Coast Guard to provide an accurate report on alternative sites and document why they were rejected. He said the town could then act at a special town meeting in September.
Daniel Greenbaum said he was a boater and in favor of the project, but he said he had reservations about Peaked Hill. "It is one of our gems that we have around here," he said. He suggested the Elizabeth Islands or the coastal area around the town of Dartmouth.
Stephen Lewenberg said the town report featured a sailboat on the cover. "This is a marine community, and I think it is very important to cooperate with the Coast Guard," he said
At the request of selectman Frank Fenner, Mr. Poole allowed Thomas Tansey, Rescue 21 environmental program manager and retired Coast Guard commander, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen Barr, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Menemsha, to answer questions.
Mr. Tansey described the project. He said the Coast Guard had looked at alternatives and decided that the best choice was Peaked Hill. The only alternative was to build a higher tower on government property in Menemsha, a more costly project that would cause a significant project delay.
Linda Thompson raised the prospect of placing the tower at the Tisbury Park and Ride, a site that includes a water tower and Tisbury public works facility. It was, she noted, "really ugly" as opposed to the existing, beautiful site.
Mr. Tansey said part of the objective was to reach out south of the Island. Moving inland to the northeast corner of the Island would not achieve that objective.
"We are trying to bring commercial fishing back to Menemsha. That means we want our young people to grow up to be fishermen," said Jane Slater. "However, we think our scenery is more important than the safety of our young people. I can't understand where you are all coming from."
Mrs. Slater reminded the voters that Chilmark had fought hard and successfully to keep the Menemsha station open, during a round of base closings.
"We got them, now they have a plan, the latest technology, they're willing to put it up in Chilmark, all we have to do is live with the sight of the tower," she said. "I don't know why that is so offensive. I would be proud of it."
Arlan Wise asked if the Coast Guard had considered Nomans Land. Mr. Tansey replied that there would be a problem supplying electric power at Nomans.
Jonathan Mayhew, a former commercial fisherman, suggested the town landfill be considered. Others favored that idea.
Mr. Doty pressed for an answer from Mr. Tansey: would the Coast Guard consider providing an analysis of only three sites - the Park and Ride, the Edgartown water tower and the Chilmark land fill? Mr. Doty suggested the Coast Guard could come up with an analysis of the three sites by June 1, after which the town could hold a special town meeting to decide the question, or the selectmen could decide.
Among the voters seated in the spare wooden surroundings of the Chilmark Community center were many former Coast Guardsmen. One of them was standing at the podium.
Mr. Poole, dressed in a his familiar blue blazer, handed the gavel to the town clerk and walked to the corner of the room, where he turned to the voters. "I am going to do something that I've only done three times since I've been moderator," said Mr. Poole. "I've given the gavel to the town clerk, and I've stepped down on the town floor.
"I'm an ex-Coast Guardsman also, and this program is fantastic. It is the most advanced thing. We need it. The whole length of the coast needs it. We don't want to be the one place that holds it up, and the sooner we get ours going the easier it is going to be for the Coast Guard to get permission in places where they haven't got it yet."
Mr. Poole chided those who suggested the Coast Guard was only worried about expense. He said the Coast Guard provided taxpayers with good value for their tax dollars. "And if they want that tower on Peaked Hill, that's where it ought to go."
After Mr. Poole spoke, Mr. Doty, sensing the effect of the long-time moderator and former selectman's words, conceded there was no viable alternative. But the last word went to a non-voter and candidate for state representative.
Chilmarker John Maloney asked Mr. Poole to allow a former active duty Coast Guardsman and current reservist from Tisbury to speak to the topic.
"If we can save one life by putting this tower in the perfect position as far as the Coast Guard is concerned," said Jacob Ferreira, "I think it is well worth it, and I think it will serve due notice that the town of Chilmark is serving its community, its Island, and its country."
The meeting ended with applause, a yes vote and a smattering of nays at 10:24 pm, about three hours after Mr. Poole gaveled the voters to order.