Chappy cell tower trial begins

By mutual agreement, the defense makes its case first.

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Rob and Dana Strayton listen to testimony during the start of the trial Monday. - Rich Saltzberg

Updated

A trial in Dukes County Superior Court over the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s approval of a 115-foot cell tower on Chappaquiddick began Monday morning. The trial is expected to last three days. Judge Paul Wilson presided over the case brought by Rob and Dana Strayton, residents of the Island who oppose the location of an AT&T cell tower. The Straytons appealed the 2017 approval of the cell tower by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The tower was also approved by the planning board in Edgartown in 2018 following a redo hearing.  

The case is being tried in-person but with COVID-19 looming large. Masks were mandatory. The number of participants in the courtroom was strictly limited and several witnesses were asked to wait downstairs in the courthouse until they were called.

Defense counsel Jonathan Elder told Judge Wilson he had witnesses from Rhode Island but because they would be coming from a state in the red, pandemic-wise, he hoped a solution could be found to get around their necessity to give testimony in person.

“I have no desire to force somebody from Rhode Island, a red state, into the courtroom,” Judge Wilson said. He said those defense witnesses can be accommodated by Zoom. 

In his opening statements, Elder, attorney for New Cingular Wireless, which he described ”for ease of reference” as AT&T, said the case fails on its merits and on standing. He said the tower hasn’t affected the plaintiffs property value or the income generated from that property. He said arguments related to health issues from the tower would be preempted by federal law and are not allowed by Massachusetts law. Elder said the MVC weighed the probable benefits and detriments of the tower and ruled accordingly. He described the 14 Sampson Ave. location of the tower, as “the best overall site.” Elder accused the plaintiffs of making the case about zoning when he said it had nothing to do with zoning.

The MVC is not a zoning body, he said.

By and large, MVC attorney Michael Hurley said in his opening comments that his position echoed Elder’s.

Brian Grossman, attorney for MVWIFI LLC and tower site owner Robert Fynbo, opened saying the plaintiffs will attempt to convince the court the case is a “referendum” on a building inspector’s decision.  

Daniel Hill, attorney for the Straytons, said in his opening statement the case was a battle against the largest telecommunications company in the world. He described the case as a “permitting process gone awry.” Hill said Chappaquiddick is a place of natural beauty and folks who live there want that preserved from things like towers and it’s the MVC’s job to preserve such places. 

“People choose homes here to avoid these things,” he said.

He said the most “inappropriate” site was chosen to erect the Vineyard’s “tallest structure,” describing the neighborhood of the tower as the most densely populated on Chappaquiddick. He said a more remote and appropriate site for the tower should have been chosen and wasn’t. 

Hill described the MVC’s approval as driven “by politics, influence, and extraneous factors.” 

In an uncommon move, the defense agreed to present first.

Adam Darack, IT manager for Edgartown, was the first to testify. Darack’s testimony revolved around his work overseeing the bid process for cellular service on Chappaquiddick and his role on an Edgartown committee that reviewed the cellular options for Chappaquiddick. 

Dan Bilezikian, a site acquisition consultant for AT&T, testified about the search process for viable sites on Chappaquiddick and the lease options offered to the handful of sites deemed acceptable. Many questions posed to Bilezikian concerned how prospective tower sites at  Majane Lane and Jeremiah Road were analyzed and how they contrasted and compared with the Sampson Avenue location. Bilezikian was asked several times to comment on documents, some of which were contested exhibits. Earlier Wilson had mentioned there were a total of 96 contested exhibits at play. At times Bilezikian was able to speak assuredly about documents put before him because of his familiarity with them, but other times he didn’t recall ever seeing certain documents.

Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer testified to how the tower had bettered emergency communications on Chappaquiddick. Schaeffer said it was “very difficult” to communicate in an emergency before the tower. He said information first responders received in the pre-tower era was often old by the time they got it. 

East Providence structural engineer Marc Chretien, who was sworn in by Superior Court Clerk-Magistrate George Davis via Zoom prior to his remote testimony, offered descriptions of the winds the monopole tower he designed for the Sampson Avenue location was rated for structurally. Chretien said even in the event of a “catastrophic failure” such towers “don’t ever topple over. They will buckle.” Chretien also provided testimony regarding the “fall zone” encompassing the tower site. Chretien admitted he hadn’t seen the fruit of his work.

“To be honest with you, I’ve never seen the tower after it was built.”  

Updated with additional reporting on the trial.