Proposed AT&T installation raises questions in Oak Bluffs

The small cell wireless facility would attach to the side of an Eversource-owned utility pole.

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--AT&T

A proposal by AT&T to install electrical equipment on an existing utility pole was met with pushback from town officials and community members at a public hearing with the Oak Bluffs Select Board Tuesday afternoon. 

Ed Pare, representing AT&T at Tuesday’s public hearing, presented the carrier company’s plans to install a 24-inch-high, 10-inch-wide, side-mounted antenna and associated equipment boxes on an existing telephone pole near 53 Pequot Ave. 

The Pequot Avenue site is a replacement location for a previously proposed Circuit Avenue utility pole; that location had been denied by local boards, who later suggested the site change. 

Per suggestions from the Cottage City Historic District Commission and the Copeland Plan Review Committee, who have both approved AT&T’s application for Pequot Avenue, the carrier company agreed to rotate the installation away from the right of way, in order to be less visible from the street. Unlike other facilities the company has installed, the proposed Pequot Avenue unit is unable to be attached to the top of the pole.

But AT&T’s proposal raised a number of concerns from the select board and members of the public, who inquired whether there were alternative locations for the electrical installation; as select board member Gail Barmakian noted, the Pequot site is located in a “high-density residential area.” 

Barmakian also joined members of the public who raised issues regarding potential health risks of the facility’s emissions. 

Oak Bluffs parks commissioner Amy Billings, who serves on the Copeland board, said she had voted against the application at a previous meeting, due to the unit’s proximity to the park space. 

But Pare explained that all other utility poles within the immediate area have already been surveyed, and were deemed not appropriate for the attachments, adding that an analysis of the surrounding area identified the Pequot Avenue site as the only available pole.

He said other locations were rejected for various reasons, including proximity to existing transformers, inability to provide necessary coverage, and “significant opposition” from the public.

In response to questions regarding whether the facility could be attached to an existing utility pole with wireless units already installed, Pare said that due to licensing, once a pole gets used, it’s no longer available for additional units.

In an effort to enhance its network, AT&T had identified areas where service was suffering, Pare explained; the particular Oak Bluffs location in question now requires additional wireless units within a target area with a 300-foot radius. 

“This is a capacity and coverage issue,” Pare said, adding that through an agreement with Eversource, the company is using existing infrastructure rather than installing an entirely new pole. 

In response to health concerns, Pare said that an emissions study showed that the facility will emit 4.98 percent of the maximum allowed by the Federal Communications Commission, adding that the units are “very low-power.”

Pare claimed there’d be no grounds for a rejection of AT&T’s application. “We satisfied the aesthetics of two significant groups, Historic and the Copeland Plan Review Committee,” he said. “We have the right to use the right of way … We found [an existing] pole we can attach to, it’s very low-impact, it complies with the FCC standard, it complies with the electrical code, and it complies with the building code. 

“This is the only other alternative,” he said. 

“It’s important to have the service,” Amy Billings said, “but at the same time, all of the poles are just getting overwhelmed.”

“Eventually I think they’re going to have to go into private locations,” she said. “I know that’s not what [Pare] wants to hear, [but] we’re getting fewer and fewer poles that these towers can go on.”

In response to comments that immediate abutters to the installation site had not been adequately notified, select member Jason Balboni suggested that the board hold off on a decision until a later date. 

The board ultimately agreed to continue the discussion, and possibly vote on the application at their next meeting, on August 22.