By Lisa Loomis

Residents spoke out against a broadband tower proposed for Bragg Hill at a Fayston Planning Commission hearing this week.

The planning commission met on January 5 to take public comment on an application by VTel Wireless to construct a tower at 247 High Country Road on land owned by Katherine Westhelle. The land is in a seven-lot subdivision created by the Westhelle family in 1998.

On Christmas Eve, abutters and the town received the notice that VTel plans to submit the application in 45 days. The VTel application to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) explains the proposal to construct the 90-foot tower with nine panel antennas ranging in size from 70 feet to 82 feet above ground level and two microwave dish antennas one by two feet and one by four feet in diameter.

VTel is a Springfield-based Internet service provider that also provides cable, telephone and wireless service. The application notes that VTel has "insufficient wireless coverage in the town of Fayston." The maps submitted with the application show no existing VTel coverage in Waitsfield or Fayston other than the proposed coverage due to the new tower.

The application suggests that the PSB approve the proposed tower because it would "bring reliable, high-speed wireless internet service to unserved homes and businesses throughout Fayston."

If the tower is built, VTel plans to offer wireless Internet services to homes and businesses in the area.

Waitsfield Telecom currently provides high-speed Internet services as well as cable, phone and long-distance services to all areas of Fayston.

By statute, the PSB has the authority to approve the location of broadband and cell towers. The PSB will consider input from local towns and abutters as well as the policies of a town's Town Plan, but the board can overrule Town Plans and disregard the recommendations of the town and/or abutters.

At this week's public meeting Jim Westhelle said that such a tower does not comply with Fayston's Town Plan, noting that the proposed elevation is about 1,900 feet and the Town Plan prohibits such towers over 1,700 feet.

Westhelle, who lives in the subdivision, also pointed out that the covenants of the 1998 subdivision specifically prohibit any commercial uses on any of the lots and further prohibit any devices for reception or transmission larger than 18 inches in circumference.

"This does not meet any of the town's criteria. It doesn't meet the setbacks; it is less than 20 feet from Mike Riddell's house. VTel got a $120 million grant in 2009 to help bring broadband to underserved areas of the state. The local phone company already provides broadband to all residents in town," Westhelle said.

Ray Pealer of EMR Safety Consultants in East Calais spoke about the health risks associated with the wireless radiation and similar towers. He said that towers should be 1,500 feet away from homes. The proposed tower is 490 feet from the nearest home.

Peter Forbes, who owns the Knoll Farm, told the planning commissioners that there is no reason to duplicate the infrastructure that Waitsfield Telecom already has in place.

"If we have a company that has already put all this infrastructure on our landscape, why would we allow another 90-foot tower?" Forbes said.

Nearby resident Gene Fialkoff suggested that the tower would reduce property values.

Select board member Jared Cadwell told planning commissioner chair Dave Koepele that the select board was very interested in the planning commission's recommendation on the matter. Cadwell said that the tower application would be added to the select board's January 12 agenda.

The planning commission will make a recommendation to the select board which will then send a letter to the PSB. The town and abutters can request party status for the PSB deliberations.

Westhelle said that if the application goes forward he will file an injunction in civil court to have it stopped. He said that VTel had been pushing him for three years wanting to put a tower on his property and that they had resisted.

"They have to get this all done by June of this year or the rest of their money goes away," he said.

Town resident Dave Jones said that townspeople shouldn't confuse this application with a cellphone tower. He said that VTel will offer Wi-Fi Internet service and will then likely rent space on the tower to others. He also said that VTel may be seeking this tower as a transport tower to link other areas of their service locations.

A balloon test to demonstrate the visibility of the proposed tower will take place January 15 from 9 to 11 a.m. with a January 16 back-up date.