MVC closes Verizon tower hearing

Written record remains open for another week.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission has closed the public hearing on a proposal to raise this Verizon tower to 130 feet to improve 911 service. - Brian Dowd

The public hearing for the Verizon tower finally closed at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission meeting Thursday night.

The proposal, which began in 2017 and has gone through five public hearings, seeks to increase the height of the tower on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road from 77 feet to 130 feet to maintain a clear Fresnel zone, unobstructed by trees.

The tower does not handle cell phone calls. It is used to primarily transmit landline and 911 calls via narrow-width microwave between Vineyard Haven and Falmouth. The tower also handles calls from Nantucket.

Currently 22 trees are obstructing the signal.

“To reiterate, it’s not a cell phone tower. There’s no profit in raising this tower to this height,” Geoghan Coogan, the attorney representing Verizon, said. “We’re doing it so high because we have to.”

Commissioner Joan Malkin repeatedly asked what the acceptable signal degradation would be below the ideal conditions.

“This tower services landline phone calls and primarily 911 service off this Island. So when you speak to could it be a little bit of lesser signal, maybe if it’s a cell tower we’re OK with that, but we’re not OK with it when it’s a public service,” Coogan said.

Malkin and commissioner Linda Sibley both wanted information on signal loss and dropped calls that Verizon has experienced, but Verizon representatives said they didn’t have a detailed list.

“Are you looking for an acceptable loss when it comes to a 911 call?” Commissioner Josh Goldstein asked Sibley.

“Yes,” Malkin said.

Coogan said he was “floored” that Malkin said there would be acceptable signal loss for emergency calls.

“Let’s say a tree gets in the way of a 911 call and there’s a disaster here, that’s acceptable to you over the visual look of the tower?” Coogan said.

Malkin asked again what the ideal loss is, since the tower has been operating for many years.

In reply, Coogan read an affidavit from Joe Baker, a Verizon radio technician who came before the commission last year.

“This season a trend continues, and we are seeing more signaling errors than we have in the past. As a technician, my concern is soon the signaling errors will become network outages. Once this happens there will be no quick fix. The network could actually go down due to obstructions along this radio hop,” Coogan read from the affidavit.

Commissioner Jim Joyce said the discussion was getting too technical, beyond what anyone in the room could understand. “We’re going around and around in circles here … all we’re really concerned about is the height,” Joyce said.

Commissioner Richard Toole, who was running the hearing, opted to close it, but leave the written record open until May 31 so Verizon could submit additional information concerning signal degradation loss.

In other business, commissioners set a June 20 public hearing to discuss the MVC’s updated housing policy.

Some of the key changes include changing the name from “affordable housing policy” to “housing policy;” mitigation options which include development of regional impact (DRI) applicants providing either land, housing, or money; and valuation of lots based on the fair market value of the improved lot.

Toole called some of the changes “radical.” An executive summary can be found on the MVC website.

After the departure of DRI coordinator Paul Foley, the MVC will have staff from other departments take charge of different DRI projects.

The MVC also hired Alex Elvin, a freelance writer who helped put together the MVC’s statistical profile. “He’s tremendously versatile. He does a lot of work in environmental stuff,” executive director Adam Turner said. “He’s also been working on elderly issues.”

“He’ll fit in great with us, then,” chairman Douglas Sederholm said.