2017-02-23 / Front Page

Proposal Rekindles Cell Tower Debate

By Tom Walsh

Verizon, one of the three communications companies currently leasing space on the controversial cell tower at Rogers High School, has returned with a new proposal that the Newport School Committee will consider.

Newport attorney Joseph M. Hall, who represents Verizon, said that AT&T is also interested in entering the dialogue and trying to continue using the tower at the Rogers site. Hall said he has not heard from the third tower occupant, T-Mobile.

“This was an unsolicited proposal, basically a plan for site modification that seeks to address some of the concerns that citizens have previously expressed,” said School Committee Chair David Hanos. “It’s something that we got a couple of weeks ago. It’s an attempt by the companies to do what they can to stay where they are. These guys went to the drawing board and have come back with something. It could develop into something. But we very well may just say thanks, but no thanks.”

The three cell companies have contracts to rent space on the tower, but they will expire this year. Verizon’s deal with the School Committee ends in June, while the other two run out a few months later.

In December of 2015, the School Committee voted to not renew the leases upon their expiration in light of vehement opposition by neighbors. At the time, School Committee member Sandra Flowers said, “Our business here is the education of our young people. We have spent too much time on this. Let the communication companies find a new place to put [a tower].”

“In a nutshell, this is a new plan,” Hall, the Verizon attorney, told Newport This Week. He said the proposal would move a Verizon platform and an equipment structure to the west, away from Old Fort Road. He maintained that the new arrangement would reduce the number of antennas now being used on the tower.

Hanos thinks the plan could “reduce the profile of the antennas.” He said the cell companies seemed to be “trying to say they will go out of their way to put their equipment on the other side of the hill. They’re trying to meet some of the committee’s concerns.”

He noted that the companies collectively pay about $90,000 annually to lease space on the tower. “We have a due diligence responsibility on our part. That’s the cost of at least one teacher and then some.”

But Hanos also said it’s important to listen to those who live near the tower, and that he will be sympathetic “if citizens don’t want it.”

Hoping to better inform city residents who live near the tower, Hanos and School Committee colleague Raymond E. Gomes organized a workshop on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the Newport Area Career and Technical Center on the Rogers campus.

“We just wanted to open this up to the neighbors to see what their thoughts are,” Gomes said prior to the meeting, adding that depending on what the neighbors had to say the matter could either be a “dead issue” by the next School Committee meeting or the committee might still be examining the new Verizon overture.

Tempers flared before the workshop even began.

“It was a very bad deal to begin with and now it’s prolonged,” said Stephen Turcotte, who lives near the tower at 125 Old Fort Road and has been an outspoken foe.

“Why are we here? Why are we back?” Turcotte asked prior to the meeting.

“Because we are going to sit down and discuss this like adults,” countered Hanos.

Eight neighbors attended the workshop, with six School Committee members present. One resident commented, “It’s more lipstick on a pig. It’s a non-starter.”

It was suggested the School Committee receive the new proposal at their next regular meeting and then summarily dismiss it. Hanos indicated that he was willing to move the issue to the committee’s next agenda.

“The neighbors are in complete agreement” that the tower should be dismantled, Turcotte told Newport This Week. “And it’s not something on which we will compromise. Just drive by. It doesn’t belong here. It’s industrial clutter. If it’s not razed completely, we will just be subjected to more of this. We’re taken aback as a community here. Opening up another Pandora’s box is unjust.”

In a subsequent email, Turcotte called this latest effort to save the cell tower “a continued distraction for the School Committee, which needs to be addressing the everyday and real issues that have the Newport school system in serious decline.”

Newport City Manager Joseph Nicholson said that he has not been involved in the matter because the cell tower has been more of an issue for the School Committee. However, he added, “The revenue aspect – that’s significant and it would certainly be a drawback.”

At Wednesday’s workshop, School Committee member David Carlin said, “The [lost revenue] is a slap in the face to neighbors.” He cited a surplus of city and state funding in the next fiscal budget that might be used to make up for the loss.

While Nicholson would not like to see cell service diminished in the southern part of Newport, he said, “I don’t have any control over it one way or the other. I’m a spectator on this one.”

Hall said he recognized that many who live near the cell tower have strong feelings about this issue. “Some of the neighbors are not in a compromising state of mind,” he acknowledged.

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