Legislators set up telecoms bill for next session to give communities more say

By Ciara McEneany | Community News Service

Communities near proposed telecommunications facilities may get to have more involvement in the siting process through a bill in the House Committee on Energy and Environment.

Right now, developers have to notify the public at least 60 days before they put in an application with the Public Utility Commission. Within that period, if requested by local authorities, developers are also required to attend a public meeting.

The bill, H.70, is looking to extend the pre-application period to 80 days and require developers to host a public meeting in the community they plan to build in.

It was introduced in January and remains in committee, meaning it will be shelved for next session. But the issues it seeks to address have only become more relevant as Vermont looks to expand and upgrade broadband and cell infrastructure.

California Public Utilities Commission

Communities near proposed telecommunications facilities may get to have more involvement in the siting process through a bill in the House Committee on Energy and Environment.

Vermont law states that the Public Utility Commission will only issue a certificate if the facility would not have undue adverse effects on aesthetics, historic sites, the natural environment or public health. Municipalities are allowed to make recommendations on cases before the commission, but they can be overruled.

“What H.70 is trying to do is to have more community and municipality involvement in the upfront notice period,” said Gregg Faber, utility analyst for the Public Utility Commission. “There’s an advance notice period and a notice period. So, it makes the advance notice period longer and it requires that every applicant has a meeting in the town prior to filing the application with the commission, and it allows for a longer period to file motions to intervene in a case.”

Advocacy groups like Vermonters for a Clean Environment believe the Public Utility Commission neglects to involve communities and does not fully consider how facilities will impact the areas where they are sited.

“The problem, overall, with the Public Utility Commission is that there are cases where the substantial deference of opponents, that includes regional or town planning commissions, has been overruled by the Public Utility Commission using the societal benefits test,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a nonprofit.

“So, they can say there is a societal benefit that will overcome and add to an undue adverse aesthetic impact, and that can overrule the finding of substantial deference or recommendations of the select board or municipal training commissions,” she said.

In the last 10 years the commission has only denied only one application for a telecommunications facility.

Sandra Bruhn, a resident of Enosburg, confronted these issues firsthand when a telecommunications facility was sited within a half mile of her home — something she said she was not told about.

“When I think about my experience, the point of view of the residents at the ground zero site of the tower weren’t included in the initial applications,” Bruhn said. “The whole experience is that if you are concerned and you want to be involved and you are worried about health and aesthetic impact, you must put in an exorbitant amount of time, effort and intensity into this current process that we have.”

Bruhn said she had to find her own expert to evaluate the possible impacts of the telecommunications facility and that the commission didn’t conduct any site visits before approving the project to evaluate those potential effects.

“We had to find our own aesthetics expert, which took three to four months, and then only to find out that it’s really expensive to hire one,” she said.

“We had one quote for $18,000 just for someone to evaluate the area. So, we had to take it upon ourselves to do our own aesthetic analysis of the area, and there are quite a few big concerns in our case that the Public Utility Commission is just choosing to overlook.”

Even with the proposed changes, the Public Utility Commission is not sure whether it will increase municipality involvement in the siting process.

And supporters of the bill believe the bill is just a first step.

“The changes are very modest, and the telecom industry is just a bullying industry in that they’ve been given an entitlement that they will defend,” said Smith. “But how it would actually change is very little and in fact, the bill doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to give voice to a better process.”

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of California Public Utilities Commission