2017-04-27 / Opinion


A Rock and a Hard Place

Back in the news with a vengeance this week is the issue of the cell tower that sits on the grounds of Rogers High School, and what to do about it.

Two years ago, neighbors mounted a "Not In My Back Yard" campaign to get rid of the 80-foot-high structure. They don’t need to be reminded that their mission was to prevent the renewal of leases held by three major cell providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) who collectively maintain the tower, making it a communications hub that serves the southern end of Newport.

Deemed an eyesore, a noise polluter and an environmental hazard, the successful campaign led the Newport School Committee to vote 5-1 in December 2015 not to renew the leases. All three are due to expire before the end of this year: Verizon on June 18, AT&T on Oct 23 and T-Mobile on Dec. 28.

Easier said than done. Last winter, the issue resurfaced. The tenants and their lawyers, it appears, had not gone quietly into the good night.

The lawyers, recharged, explained with renewed fervor that despite a diligent search, they had found no place for the tower to go. Without it plugged in and pinging, they warned that Newport residents and businessmen (even tourists) would experience a severe drop in coverage, and with it crucial public safety services. (AT&T alone, said its attorney, handles 4.2 million calls a year from the Rogers location).

Plans were presented for a redesigned tower and equipment, moved to a more appealing site. At a February 22 workshop the NIMBY group returned in force. Calling it “industrial clutter,” one frustrated resident later told Newport This Week, “It doesn’t belong here.”

Things are at a standstill, and the School Committee is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Would residents of the south end of Newport really take such a hard hit? Would it adversely affect tourism? Would we sacrifice e-911 alerts? Would the dismantling of those towers really put the social, economic and physical health of the community in jeopardy? If these predictions are accurate, then something needs to be done.

But we also agree that neighbors should not have to look at it or, as some have said, be within earshot of its disruptive pings and dings. For the use of the site, the Newport School Committee receives $90,000 a year, which is an almost insignificant percentage of the school's budget. We find it hard to believe that there doesn’t exist a small plot of land somewhere in that part of town where a better designed, less obtrusive system would fit in. If we can put a man on the moon…

Take it a step further: Design a parklet for it! If some of the city’s more innovative thinkers can provide pedestrians with an appealing Plug Park for phones and even laptops on a busy city sidewalk (see story, page 1), we’d like to think they would be up to the challenge. And if the telecommunications businesses really want to be here, instead of lawyering up, they could partner up. There might even be a bidding war.

Somewhere out there between an actual rock and a hard place, there might be a solution.

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