Arena seeks to build a cell phone tower

The Martha's Vineyard Arena.
File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha's Vineyard Arena.

The Martha’s Vineyard Arena (MVA) will go ahead with plans to build a 120-foot wireless communications tower at the back of its property on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs, across from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). The project has been a long time coming and undergone modification since the original plans were approved in 2008 by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

One of the project’s last hurdles is approval from the MVRHS district school committee. The the MVA asked for that approval in a letter last June. As superintendent of schools James Weiss explained at the high school committee’s September 16 meeting, the MVA’s purchase of its property from the MVRHS district in 1974 involved special legislation. The deed stipulated that the property’s sole purpose would be for recreation, and more specifically, skating on an ice rink, he said.

“So the question becomes, is this something that would be in the realm of that special legislation,” Mr. Weiss told the committee.

“Right now the attorney for the arena, Sean Murphy, and our attorney, Matt Tobin of Murphy, Lamere, and Murphy, have been debating and working that out,” he added.

Mr. Weiss said he has a telephone conference scheduled with Mr. Tobin to try to bring the matter to some conclusion, and hopes to either bring a recommendation to the land use subcommittee or, if everything is fairly straightforward, to the high school committee at its next meeting on October 7.

A change in plans

In its application to the MVC in 2008, the MVA, a nonprofit community organization, proposed to build a wind turbine and cell phone equipment tower in order to cut increasingly high utility costs and raise revenues. With a height up to 140 feet, the combination tower would include a wind turbine, for a maximum height of up to 172.5 feet, and wireless telecommunications equipment for up to four cell phone providers.

The site of the Island’s only ice rink, the MVA is home to the regional high school’s boys and girls hockey teams, a figure skating club, youth hockey organization, and an adult league. It also offers public skating and skating clinics.

The idea of building a cell phone tower on the property as a revenue source began with the MVA board’s discussions in 2006 with Maxton Technology, a wireless telecommunication services provider headquartered in South Easton. Following meetings with the Oak Bluffs planning board and subsequent public hearings, Oak Bluffs voters approved the addition of the ice arena property to the town’s wireless overlay district at the 2007 annual town meeting.

In December that year, the MVA board was on the verge of going with the cell phone tower when Gary Harcourt of Great Wind Rock, an Island-based small wind energy consulting and installation business, came forward with a wind turbine proposal. After the board shifted its focus in favor of the wind turbine, Maxton Technology came up with a proposal to put cell phone equipment on the tower.

Back to the drawing board

The MVA’s wind turbine project underwent an aeronautical study by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in addition to review as a development of regional impact by the MVC. Mr. Harcourt was the co-applicant with then MVA president Jevon Rego for the MVC permit. The MVC approved the project with several conditions, pending FAA approval, in October 2008. However, on December 5, the FAA sent the MVA a “Notice of Presumed Hazard,” recommending that the wind turbine structure be reduced to 94 feet above ground level.

In a previous interview with The Times, Mr. Rego said that 94 feet would not be high enough to make the wind turbine efficient and would not allow enough room between the blades of the wind turbine to position cell phone equipment above the treeline.

“This was the first application we made before we did any of our local permitting applications,” Mr. Rego said. “We never expected to have any problems, based on the wind turbine at the high school, which is 112 feet. Apparently we’re just further enough in line with the airport’s runway to make a significant difference.”

The FAA decision put the ice arena in a “holding pattern,” he added, since part of the funding for the wind turbine project depended on the wireless communications component. The MVA subsequently appealed the FAA decision in 2009 and received approval for a 123-foot tower. With permits in hand, Mr. Rego said it was back to the drawing board to come up with a different model that might work and to coordinate the project with cell phone wireless providers.

In October 2012, Mr. Murphy wrote a letter the the MVC on the MVA’s behalf asking the commission to approve a modification of the project approved in 2008.

“The arena has since negotiated an agreement with Grain Communications to construct a monopole tower on the property that would create a consistent revenue stream for the arena through the lease arrangement with Grain Communications,” Mr. Murphy said in the letter.

In addition to the change from a lattice-type tower, the MVA proposed to reduce the height to 120 feet. The MVC voted on November 15, 2012, that the modified proposal was within the scope of the original decision and did not require a public hearing. The commission did require that the design of any subsequent cell phone tower be reviewed and approved by its land use planning committee.

The next step

The MVA’s continued pursuit of the project is for financial purposes, as Mr. Weiss acknowledged at the school committee meeting last week. “If they lease the land for the cell tower, they would be able to make a profit,” he explained. “They have some financial issues and they believe that would assist them in being solvent over the long term.”

At the time that the MVA proposed its original wind turbine and cell phone tower in 2008, the year-round arena was the Island’s third largest energy consumer, after schools and grocery stores.

After initial discussion of the MVA’s request for approval in June, the high school committee’s land use subcommittee agreed with Mr. Weiss to refer the question about the property’s use to counsel.

“I would say in a general sense, our attorney has some concerns; their attorney thinks it’s fine,” Mr. Weiss said last week. “So we’ve got to get the two of them in the same place, so that we are not going to have any issues going forward. We can probably do that within the next week.”

Mr. Weiss acknowledged that the MVA would like to move forward as soon as possible, and that the school district would be happy to do that, provided all the legal requirements are met.

“In no way, shape or form would you want to suddenly be the owner of an ice arena or the operator of an ice arena — or a cell tower either,” Mr. Weiss advised the committee. “We much prefer them to do that, but we’ll see how this plays out over the next few weeks.”