In about face, FARM Institute agrees to 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

Reversing their earlier position, The FARM Institute board will support Edgartown’s plans to install a mobile phone antenna inside a silo at the Katama Farm, which is owned by the town and leased to the nonprofit FARM. Selectmen voted to forward the project for approval to the required town boards.

At the Tuesday meeting of the Edgartown selectmen, FARM Institute board member Howard Miller told town leaders that his board now supported for the project. At the meeting, Mr. Miller said the board approval is unconditional.

“In so far as the proposal is concerned,” he told town leaders, “we do intend to work out the details with AT&T for certain things like where the location of the equipment will be located, but the approval is unconditional in regards to the location.”

Selectmen and members of the conservation commission, which is responsible for the FARM property, thought they had an agreement in place to lease out space to a wireless provider.

They were surprised to learn that on May 18, The FARM board had rejected the proposed location of the antenna citing concerns about radiation from wireless phone equipment. At that meeting, the nonprofit’s board voted to authorize Mr. Miller to negotiate an alternative location for the antenna.

Town leaders said the antenna would improve and expand mobile phone service in the area, and provide significant income.

The antenna would be housed inside an unused silo at the farm, 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.

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.

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

The FARM board vote was not unanimous. Board member Kathy Cerick of Chilmark resigned on Monday, following the vote. “There are other members of the board here who feel that it’s important to speak on the issue themselves and I’d like to make it clear that they’re individuals and not necessarily the FARM and probably not the FARM,” Mr. Miller said.

Ms. Cerick told selectmen she did not represent The FARM. She said that the consultants used by the town and AT&T were biased in favor of the project. “I think that the selectmen heard from AT&T which has a very strong reason to want to put these towers up,” she said. “I know the town really wants to for a lot of reasons.”

She told selectmen she will pay for an expert to travel to the Island and speak on the safety of the project. “You know, when someone goes to court, a judge or a jury hears both sides of the story,” she said.

Five minutes after the selectmen opened the issue up for discussion, the board voted to move the project forward, in a unanimous vote.

The wireless phone antenna still needs to be approved by the planning board and the conservation commission.

In the followup phone conversation Wednesday, Ms. Cerick repeated the need for an outside opinion. “Of course the telecommunication companies will tell you it’s perfectly safe,” she said.

She told The Times she is willing to pay the expenses to bring David Carpenter, the director for the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, to examine the project.

Mr. Carpenter is listed on the university’s website as an expert in “human health effects of environmental contaminants, including metal and organic compounds.”