It was a busy Thursday night for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) as it reviewed plans for the Edgartown Stop & Shop expansion, the Verizon tower in Vineyard Haven, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital expansion.
The proposed height increase to the Verizon tower in Vineyard Haven elicited pushback from the public and uncertainty from the MVC.
Verizon’s proposal is to increase the height of the existing tower from 77 feet to 130 feet to maintain a clear Fresnel zone, unobstructed by trees.
The tower is used to transmit landline calls and Internet access via narrow-width microwave between Vineyard Haven and Falmouth. The tower also handles calls from Nantucket.
The tower does not handle cell phone calls, but is strictly used to transmit police, fire department, EMS, and emergency 911 calls. Emergency telecommunication calls are sent off-Island, go through a 911 call center, then come back for emergency personnel to be dispatched. Similarly, AT&T emergency calls are sent off-Island, but must come back through the Verizon tower to be sent out to local dispatch.
“This tower serves 911 calls. It’s an emergency services tower. It’s not a cell phone tower, it’s not picking up, calling your best friend down the street to go to dinner. This thing is a necessity, period, end of story,” attorney Geoghan Coogan, who was representing Verizon, stressed to the MVC.
Coogan said there were 22 trees currently causing signal degradation, and that the problem would only get worse.
“The signal’s already being affected, and it’s going to, over time here, get worse and worse and worse. So when you pick up the phone and call 911, somebody’s not going to show up to your house. That’s the end result here that we’re talking about,” Coogan said.
Verizon settled on the 130-foot height because it would be much higher than any tree in the area could grow. Additionally, Verizon asked several homeowners if they could trim trees on their properties, but they declined.
Verizon radio technician Joe Baker used the MVC’s whiteboard to draw an example of how the towers send and receive signals. Trying to explain radio technicalities in layman’s terms, Baker said the tower was like a flashlight, and the trees were like people sticking their fingers in front of the lens.
Baker told the MVC there will always be signal disturbance due to weather or other natural occurrences, but that a healthy receive signal level would be around -35 decibel-milliwatts (dBm). Since 2013, the tower has see its receive signal level go from -37 dBm to -47 dBm. “That’s a lot of loss,” Baker said. The most loss the tower can get before signal dropout is -72 dBm.
Baker said the Island does not have signal loss yet, but it is currently experiencing bit loss — pieces of the signal are falling out, and will only get worse during a storm, which can lower the dBm by -20 or more.
“Without raising the towers, you won’t be able to provide service to the Islands,” Baker said.
Several commissioners brought up the idea of moving the tower farther back on the property to make it less visible, but Baker said it would “open up a whole nother can of worms.”
Nancy Langman, a Vineyard Haven resident and nurse practitioner who lives near the Verizon property, read a letter she sent to The Times raising health concerns with the tower. “While some studies suggest that exposure at ground level has not been shown to cause health problems, other studies suggest that proximity to a tower may be harmful. The jury is out. We don’t really know. So why build a tower near residential homes? Instead, why not move the tower to a site that does not impact a neighborhood?” Langman said.
Charles Noonan, who lives across the street from Verizon, had issues with the height and reason for building the tower. He said Verizon had yet to quantify the amount of signal loss it is experiencing.
“This is to raise the tower to get the 911 calls that are supposedly being dropped to go through so that Verizon’s contract can continue, but we have the potential for other commercial traffic being added to that tower. The benefit to the community versus the potential for corporate gain here with a permanent structure that will alter the neighborhood permanently … is kind of strange,” Noonan said.
Baker said that a person standing directly in front of the microwave dish would be affected, but that could not happen because the dish is on top of the tower, and would only get farther away from the ground if the height increase was approved.
“This is not a cell phone tower corporate-greed structure here. This is 911 services. As much as it is not in the ideal location, the things that we’re hearing and that we’re sensitive to, you would be much more sensitive if you drop with a heart attack and [emergency services] don’t pick up,” Coogan said.
Coogan added that the commissioners would find information and answers in the yearlong study Verizon conducted to determine the 53-foot increase.
“We ought to read the study,” commissioner E. Douglas Sederholm said.
The MVC decided to continue the hearing to Sept. 20 because Baker and his associate had to leave to catch a boat.
Stop & Shop gets green light
The commission approved the Edgartown Stop & Shop project with conditions back in January, which would add 17,432 square feet of additions to the existing structure. The conditions were to redesign the western entrance on Upper Main Street to prevent parking traffic at the main entry and exit points, and to make extensive redesigns to the roof, façade, and other exterior of the building to “be more consistent with the town and Island character,” according to the January decision DRI.
Project architect Tom Scott spoke with the MVC Thursday to explain the redesigned entrance and architectural designs. He described several design changes to the building, including an increase to the size of the overhang gable around the store and aesthetic changes to the design of the front of the building. Scott shifted the main entrance of the building over to the left, allowing the store to stay in full operation during construction.
Several commissioners took issue with the west-facing side of the building near the loading dock, where there was no overhang gable to protect people from rain. Scott said there was no reason they couldn’t add the additional overhang gable. The MVC then approved the project with the redesigned plans, with the condition they add the overhang gable where the loading dock starts and connect it around the building.
In other business, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital got the go-ahead to continue with its plans to modify sections of its campus. The hospital submitted its plans to expand its clinical services, which the MVC approved, with a condition that any reduction in clinical use would need to be approved by the MVC.
Commissioner Josh Goldstein, who was not present at Thursday’s meeting, sent a memo to the other commissioners expressing his support of the hospital’s project and how one of his family members was recently rushed to the hospital then medevaced to Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I would encourage all of you to vote yes and allow the hospital to continue to expand and provide care to all Islanders,” the memo read.
“This is an exciting time for the hospital. It’s really a new direction to help a lot of people on the Island for primary care, elderly care, and long-term care,” chairman Jim Vercruysse said. “It’s really exciting for all of us because, you know, none of us are getting younger.”
The MVC also approved the installation of a solar array at North Tabor Farm that will provide close to 100 percent of the energy need to operate the farm and a house on the property.
Commissioner Joan Malkin motioned for a condition to require MVC approval to cut down the trees behind the array, but the motion did not pass.
Commissioners passed a written approval for the reconfiguration of workforce housing units on the upper floors of the Lampost in Oak Bluffs.
Thursday’s meeting began on a sentimental note, with a tribute to former MVC executive director Mark London, who died Saturday. The commission shared a slideshow of photos of London while several commissioners praised London and his work with the MVC and for the Island.
Current executive director Adam Turner read a prepared statement: “Mark was someone who you could count on. He was also someone who, to his detriment at times, was fearless. He was going to offer his views regardless of who was listening and whether or not they agreed. Mark was true to himself and true to this commission.”