Cell service needed in Kent, but no easy answers

The nation is divided on so many new issues, from who should be elected president to whether masks should be worn in public. That doesn’t mean that the old schisms no longer exist. Of course they still do; and some of them are growing in intensity — even if we don’t focus on them as we concentrate instead on potentially life-threatening challenges. 

Scheduled for Sept. 3 is the next hearing by the state Siting Council on whether AT&T should be allowed to build a new communications tower in Kent that would be more than 150 feet tall.  

In the past year, many town residents have expressed a strong antipathy toward the idea of having the tower at either of the proposed sites, on Bald Hill or Richards Road. The town government, led ably by First Selectman Jean Speck, has filed to be a participant in the Siting Council process. 

At the same time, some town residents have said that they feel the tower is urgently needed; those residents are, largely, members of the volunteer fire company.

They say that the lack of cell service there is dangerous. Not only do homeowners go without it but there is also a section of Segar Mountain Road, which is winding and steep, that has been the site of fatal vehicle accidents over the years. When there is a crash (or a fire) calls can’t be made to 911 from the roadside in that section of town.

AT&T has also offered to allow the volunteer fire department to put its own antenna on the new  tower.  Kent Volunteer Fire Department Communications Officer Alan Gawel said in the July 23 public hearing before the Siting Council that, “The bottom line is that we need to have emergency communications for the fire department. We perform fire, EMS and rescue operations for the town.” The free space on the tower would be “a huge asset in a small town and a small volunteer department.”

First Selectman Speck is also a member of the volunteer fire department and of course understands the importance of emergency communications. She has done an admirable job of making sure that all voices are heard in this process. She appreciates (as does Gawel, based on his remarks to the Siting Council) the importance of protecting the town’s natural beauty, which would be marred, based on the evidence of balloon tests made twice this year at the two sites. 

Todd Powell, a town resident, has suggested building multiple small towers around town rather than a single tall one. This is closer to the new 5G model that Gov. Ned Lamont has vowed to bring to all Connecticut towns. The 5G plan, however, has raised considerable anxiety among area residents, who feel that the towers generate radiation that can cause serious or fatal illness. 

Many Kent residents have said they believe that having another cell tower in town will reduce the resale value of their homes. Area real estate agents disagree, and note that in this summer’s COVID-induced real estate boom, the first thing that new buyers insist on is improved cable, internet and cell service in their newly purchased homes.

Ultimately, it is not up to the town government to decide whether a tower can or can not be built. It is up to the Siting Council, which has said that it feels its mission is to make sure there are as few towers in our scenic towns as possible. During the hearing process, comments have been made accusing the council of rubber stamping every application. 

The opinions expressed on both sides of this issue have merit, of course. And the conflict within Kent is a mirror of the feelings of the region at large, where the same concerns are expressed, about health and safety, scenic views and real estate values. The same urgent need for coverage is also expressed regionally not just by  fire and ambulance personnel but also by the group Northwest ConneCT, which is working to improve cell and internet coverage in Litchfield County. 

There is no easy or right answer. But one thing is certain: In this COVID-19 year, many adults who are now working from home and many students who are now learning at home will wish they had better cell and internet service.

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