MVC puts Chappy AT&T wireless antenna on hold

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission put off a decision pending a visit to Chappaquiddick to see the antenna site.

Edgartown official endorsed a plan for a temporary wireless tower on Chappy. — File photo by Bill Brine

Following an hour-long public hearing Thursday night before a capacity crowd at which one public official after another testified to the pressing need for improved wireless service, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) put off a decision on a temporary wireless antenna AT&T proposes to erect on Chappaquiddick until next Thursday. The MVC punted in order to allow time for a Monday site visit by commissioners.

The MVC is reviewing the antenna, which would be erected on a hill in the middle of the island on a half-acre lot at 14 Sampson Avenue owned by Bob Fynbo, owner of Chappaquiddick Wireless Internet Service Provider (Chappy WISP) as a Development of Regional Impact (DRI). The proposed antenna would be 108 feet tall and 36 inches in diameter, supported by three guy wires and surrounded by a sixteen foot fence. It would not be lighted or require an on-site employee. Mr. Fynbo already has an 85 foot antenna on his property, which he erected 34 years ago for Chappy WISP.  His tower would remain standing.

Chappy residents and Edgartown’s elected, appointed and public safety officials have wrangled, studied and discussed how best to improve Chappy’s non-existent to poor wireless service for more than five years. When in February, AT&T unveiled a proposal to erect a temporary wireless antenna and do its best to get it up and running by Memorial Day weekend, the proposal won the support of Edgartown selectmen, planning board members, public safety officials, and members of the Chappaquiddick wireless committee.

Brian Grossman, attorney with Cambridge-based Anderson & Kreiger, which represents AT&T in this deal, provided a PowerPoint presentation to the MVC Thursday night showing test results that concluded the antenna would increase coverage to 78 percent of Chappy, including all of the beaches. He also showed views from six different locations on the island, with the antenna photoshopped in the picture. The antenna was visible in varying degrees from three of the locations. He said that the proposed antenna was temporary because it was the only way the permitting and construction could be done to provide a cell phone signal boost by Memorial Day.  

“AT&T has moved as fast as I’ve seen them in all my years of doing business with them,” he said. Mr. Grossman said the antenna would take three weeks to build and another week to become fully operational.

Save lives and time

The majority of those in attendance, both private citizens and public officials, favored the antenna, citing public safety as their primary concern.

Edgartown police chief David Rossi and fire chief Peter Shemeth strongly endorsed the project. Mr. Rossi said police radios have very limited coverage on Chappy and improved cell coverage would considerably improve the safety of his officers and the general public.

Mr. Shemeth said the fire department uses a cellphone app that receives the 911 call and immediately shows a turn-by-turn set of instructions to the origin of the call, which can be especially helpful on Chappy, with its maze of dirt roads.

“Our guys get the directions before they leave the station and lose them on the other side of the island — This happened just the other day,”  he said. “A better signal will save time, and save energy and save lives.”

AT&T is the cell phone service provider for both Edgartown departments.  

Chairman of the selectmen Michael Donaroma said the board was in full support of the antenna. “We’ve been working on this for five years, and at times it’s been pretty heated” he said. “We’ve had a lot of meetings and looked at a lot of options and at the end of the day, AT&T was the only one who stepped up.”

Mr. Donaroma also acknowledged the diligence of the “Wireless Committee,” a group of Chappy residents who have spearheaded the effort to improve cell service for many years.

AT&T was the only company to respond to a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a wireless antenna, sent out by the wireless committee last summer.

Chappy ferry owner and fire chief captain Peter Wells also endorsed the project. “This is a golden opportunity to test this out,” he said. “Remember, this is a temporary tower.”

Edgartown planning board chairman Michael McCourt said his board was also squarely behind the antenna. “We have two chances at this,” he said, referring to the six month projected life of the temporary tower, which would be followed by a permanent tower. “It allows for a logical decision. Police and fire and emergency vehicles will have coverage. What’s more important than that?”

Wireless Committee chairman Woody Filley said improved coverage also has a practical side, since contractors and tradesman also need to be reliably connected for commerce.

Mr. Filley also gave a brief synopsis of the wireless committee’s campaign to improve communication on Chappy, starting in 2010, which included several RFP’s that went unanswered, and a general lack of interest from communications companies to service the secluded island.

Sampson Avenue resident Hanley Clifford told the commission he lives near Mr. Fynbo’s property and favors the new antenna. “I see Bob Fynbo’s tower every day, and I like it,” he said. “There are flag poles just as high and much uglier and the halyards make noise all day and night. I’m in favor of it.”

Not all Chappy residents present spoke in favor of the project.

“People don’t come to Chappy to look at cell phone towers,” Sampson Avenue resident Molly Pickett said. Ms. Pickett lives directly across from Mr. Fynbo. “This is about the worst, most obtrusive placement of that pole which is being crammed into a small lot in a residential neighborhood.”

Sampson Avenue resident Corinne Costello also said the tower should not be placed in such a densely populated area, and expressed concern the tower would have on property values.  
Terri Carilli  said she had just purchased her Sampson Avenue home in October. She also objected to the structure being planted in a residential area and suggested that it be placed on community property, such as the Chappy community center or the fire station “which is 300 yards up the road.”   

Mr. Grossman said a number of town-owned locations were considered, including the fire station, which wasn’t an option because the building takes up almost the entire lot.

Commissioner Fred Hancock from Oak Bluffs, who ran the public hearing, moved that the proceedings be suspended until next Thursday to give commissioners time for a site visit. Commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury agreed and, referencing the torrential rain outside, suggested the visit be on a day that wouldn’t be compromised by inclement weather.

None of those present and who had argued strongly in favor of the need for the antennae objected to the MVC delay.

Checking the forecast on his cellphone, Mr. Hancock suggested the site visit be made on Monday.