The FARM Institute rejects wireless phone antenna in Katama silo

The town would like to lease space in a silo at The FARM Institute in Katama to wireless carrier AT&T. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Concerned about radiation from wireless phone equipment, The FARM Institute Friday threw a monkey wrench into Edgartown’s plans to install a mobile phone antenna inside a silo at the farm.

Town leaders said the antenna would improve and expand mobile phone service in the area, and provide significant income. Edgartown officials said they would plow ahead with the plan.

On Friday, the directors of The FARM, which leases the farm at a nominal fee from the town, voted to authorize board member Howard Miller to negotiate an alternative location for the antenna.

The move took Edgartown selectmen, the conservation commission (ConCom), and town staffers by surprise. They had in hand a detailed agreement with The FARM Institute to locate the antenna on the silo, though it was never signed. For months, town officials have negotiated with mobile service provider AT&T, which wants to build the antenna and a small equipment shed, on the assumption that an agreement with The FARM is in place.

“I was under the impression we had email confirmation,” selectman Art Smadbeck said at Monday’s regular meeting of the board. “I don’t think we have time for them to change their mind. I don’t see that this is possible. We have substantial income at stake. To suddenly pull the plug on the whole project would be extremely costly.”

AT&T has offered to pay $28,000 to rent the space from the town for the first year. Each year the rent increases by three percent. Over the 10-year lease, the town would realize $321,000 in revenue.

Mr. Miller said The FARM Institute is not against the idea of installing mobile phone infrastructure on the farm property, but does not want it near the center of activity.

“The details of the proposal are just becoming clear to The FARM,” Mr. Miller said in a phone interview. “The bottom line for the moment is they did not want the antenna on the silos, which is, from the farm’s perspective, in the hub of serious activity for summer camp. There is also the perception of some of the members that there could be possible radiation effects.”

Conservation commission members attended Monday’s selectmen’s meeting. The conservation commission manages The FARM property for the town. The ConCom members said that through extensive negotiation with AT&T, the town won an agreement to put the antenna inside the unused silo, so it would not be visible from the outside. AT&T would also build a small shed at the base of the silo to house equipment.

They said it is unlikely that town boards would allow a stand-alone mobile phone tower elsewhere on the property. They also said mobile phone equipment is located next to populated areas throughout the country, and there is no scientific evidence that mobile phone signals are harmful.

The federal Telecommunication Act of 1996 bars towns from arbitrarily rejecting an application to site a wireless facility. The act also prohibits towns from citing the perceived environmental or health effects of radio frequency emissions. While the law empowers cities and towns to control where the facilities are sited, town governments are not granted the right to say no to any carrier. At the same time, the burden is on the carrier to demonstrate that there is a need for coverage and to make efforts to share wireless facility sites.

Town administrator Pam Dolby said The FARM Institute’s offer to relocate the antenna is not a viable alternative. “It’s a communication on how to kill the project,” she said.

Mr. Miller said that The FARM is negotiating in good faith and is not trying to kill the project.

“That’s certainly not our intention,” Mr. Miller said. “I’m not an engineer and I’m not a contractor, but I see these poles and wires all over the country. I can’t imagine it’s that expensive to put up a pole.”

ConCom members and selectmen were critical of The FARM’s closed-door board meeting on Friday. They said an offer to have mobile phone consultants explain the proposal was rebuffed, and no town officials were allowed to attend.

No one from The FARM Institute attended Monday’s selectmen’s meeting.

It’s not clear whether the town, which is, in effect, The FARM Institute’s landlord, needs permission from The FARM Institute to install the antenna and equipment.

The ConCom was set to discuss the issue at its Wednesday meeting. “As far as the conservation commission is concerned, we have voted every single time it has come before us to go forward,” chairman Edward Vincent said.

Selectmen plan to vote on their next action at next week’s meeting.

“From where I sit, if the conservation commission says ‘yes’ at your meeting, I’m ready to move forward,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “I don’t accept that they’ve changed their mind. You can’t do that to the town at this late date.”