The Martha’s Vineyard Commission considered a height upgrade and other enhancements to a West Tisbury cell tower during its weekly meeting Thursday. Kimberly Revak, a representative for AT&T and American Tower, came before the commission for a hearing on the proposed enhancements.
DRI coordinator Alex Elvin told the commission the tower was “about” 65 feet tall and situated in a fenced compound.
The height change would exceed the previous DRI approval, Elvin said. Elvin said both AT&T and Verizon would utilize the tower.
Revak told the commission that under FCC regulations, the tower measurement worked out to 60 feet.
Revak said the goal was to add 15 feet, and bring the tower to 75 feet tall. This extension of height, she explained, was permissible under FCC regulations.
Commissioner Doug Sederholm, who served as hearing officer, was unsure if Revak’s calculations for height matched the relevant regulations, but accepted her position for the record.
At issue was whether the augmentation of the tower height, in addition to the installation of a new antenna, a generator, and a walk-in cabinet constituted a “substantial change” that would necessitate further review by the commission.
Revak said the proposal could have lawfully called for a higher extension, but that wasn’t necessary based on the coverage needs that were being addressed.
MVC documents describe the tower as a “stealth monopole” or “monopine,” essentially a tower camouflaged as a tree.
“The current tower has shed a fair amount of plastic waste into the environment, both inside and outside the fenced-in compound,” Elvin said. “It looks like a lot of the branches on top have fallen off.”
Elvin said the applicant offered to clean up the plastic litter.
Revak said most monopines get branch replacement every five years.
“So in this case they’re obviously behind,” Revak said. “The answer they had to that was obviously COVID, and things like that just delayed them. They couldn’t get out there as soon as they were supposed to. You know, tackle that for what it’s worth, but maintenance — replacing of those branches is a typical part of the maintenance of the tower itself.”
“I highly doubt there’s any potential for a maintenance plan to collect those branches as they get scattered out through the woods,” Commission Ben Robinson said. “You would have to go check after every windstorm, and that’s just totally unfeasible to do. And what we’re considering is just a constant replenishing of plastic. What happens to the plastic that they collect? It just goes into the waste stream. What happens to the bit of plastic they don’t collect — they just live in the natural environment, close to our pond. Why would you consider continuing with this plastic shielding? It doesn’t look like a real tree. If we want to have cell phones, let’s live with the fact that we need cell towers.”
Robinson asked if West Tisbury town officials had weighed in on the plastic waste. Elvin said the town hadn’t, but abutters had provided correspondence “that does point out potential environmental impacts.”
MVC chair Joan Malkin asked Revak if the MVC and the town of West Tisbury wanted the plastic branches removed, if that would trigger a redesign of the tower.
“They would simply just remove them,” Revak said.
Whether that would be a request from the MVC or from West Tisbury was something Malkin thought could be addressed at the deliberation stage of the application.
West Tisbury ZBA chair Larry Shubert, speaking personally as opposed to for his board, said he supported keeping the tree-like look of the tower, because from certain points of view of the area it masks the presence of telecommunications infrastructure.
Neighbor Scott McIsaac said he opposed the height increase, and also said he thought such an increase violated conditions placed on the tower by West Tisbury.
Elvin said the proposed generator would activate automatically during an outage, and once a week for 20 minutes for maintenance. Elvin said the applicant was asked to consider a battery option as opposed to a generator, but wasn’t responsive to that request except to say it couldn’t be considered.
Sederholm made it clear time was of the essence for the commission, and that it seemed unlikely the commission would be able to do anything more than place conditions on the project. He noted if the commission doesn’t wrap things up by Dec. 20, the project will automatically be approved. He suggested addressing the conditions of the shedding plastic and of the project’s carbon footprint from the generator. Sederholm closed the hearing and left the written record open.