Chappy cell tower trial concludes

Dana Strayton completes testimony; January post-trial hearing set.

Left to right: Plaintiff Dana Strayton and her attorneys Kaitlyn Baptista, and Daniel Hill. — Screenshot

A trial over the approval of a Chappaquiddick cell tower by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) wrapped up Monday in a Zoom session presided over by Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson. 

Chappy residents Dana and Robert Strayton sued AT&T and the MVC, claiming that the MVC’s tower approval and the processes that led to it were flawed. The Straytons also claimed their home and their enjoyment of it have suffered because of the tower. AT&T and the MVC haven’t seen it that way, and have argued vigorously against the Straytons’ assertions. After the conclusion of testimony from Dana Strayton and wrangling over exhibits and motions, the proceeding wound down without closing arguments. 

Wilson set a deadline of Jan. 8 for post-trial briefs that would contain the final arguments of the litigants. Wilson also slated a hearing for Jan. 20 to mop up any remaining business. He didn’t forecast when he expected to rule on the case. 

As it did for the first three days of trial, back in October, the pandemic affected the character of Monday’s proceeding. In October, the number of people in the courtroom had been strictly controlled, and all participants spoke from behind masks and Plexiglas screens. Masks remained mandatory when the court traveled to Chappy for site visits. The fourth and final trial day was previously set to finish in Boston at Suffolk Superior Court. However, at least one courthouse closure triggered by a statewide resurgence in the virus recast the trial as a virtual event. 

Dana Strayton, whose testimony was left unfinished in October, was virtually resworn by Dukes County Superior Court Clerk Magistrate George Davis as she sat beside her legal team. In response to questions by one of her attorneys, Kaitlyn Baptista, Strayton testified about why she opposes the tower.

“Obviously it has a visual effect,” she said. She described the structure as “a massive, gray tower over my property” that was in an “inappropriate location,” and raised safety concerns, including the danger of interference with her husband’s medical devices.

Brian Grossman, attorney for MVWIFI LLC and tower site owner Robert Fynbo, objected to any testimony or arguments about the health effects of the tower, specifically how it might or might not affect Robert Strayton’s medical devices. Grossman pointed to preclusions in the Telecommunications Act that rendered the subject off-limits. Judge Wilson agreed, and denied further exploration of the subject.

Strayton told the court she and her husband of 22 years had a small condominium in Natick with no real outdoor space, and having a home on Chappy afforded them the outdoors. Strayton testified to plans she and her husband have to clear trees from their property and install a hedge and a “gorgeous flowery oasis,” but the tower has negatively affected those plans. “If those trees are removed, the view of the tower will worsen,” she said.

She also testified to fears something might fall off the tower, and noted recent earthquake activity in the region, as well as a recent tornado warning. She testified that tower workers recently told her husband when he was on Sampson Avenue that he needed to wear a hardhat.

The defense objected to the hardhat story, calling it hearsay. Wilson agreed and ordered the subject struck.

AT&T attorney Jonathan Elder and Strayton attorneys Baptista and Daniel Hill went back and forth over the value of a 2019 Edgartown annual report and the unmet alleged need for a request for proposals (RFP) for town-owned sites prior to the selection of Fynbo’s site for the tower. Hill argued the evaluation process for suitable town-owned sites had been too narrow. Elder argued the town sites were ultimately unavailable, and that the idea of the RFP necessity and the plaintiff’s arguments accompanying that idea constituted “one of the dead horses of this trial.”

Baptista pointed to previous testimony from Edgartown IT manager Adam Darack about his work on the committee that evaluated various town sites. She noted those sites went from available to unavailable due to what Darack described as “local opposition.”

At the end of the proceeding, Wilson weighed a plaintiff motion and defense countermotion for a directed verdict on standing, and denied both without prejudice. He told the litigants those motions could be developed further in their post-trial briefs. 

“You’ve all represented your clients well,” Wilson said to the attorneys. “This has been a well-tried case.”