New rules for siting cell towers win praise and some static
The Legislature during the final days of the 2011 session established a few more hoops for telecommunications companies to jump through before dotting Connecticut's landscape with more cellular towers.
Under the measure, the Connecticut Siting Council -- the appointed body in charge of approving applications -- is encouraged to keep construction at least 250 feet from schools and day-care centers. And cities and towns, while having no approval authority, will have 90 days notice rather than 60 and must be given more detailed information about the need for a tower.
But critics say the bill, which awaits Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's signature, is a pyrrhic victory and should have granted municipalities the power to site towers.
"They knew people were upset across the state, so they passed something and heralded it as a great triumph for citizenry," said Keith Ainsworth, a New Haven-based attorney who represents clients in their battles against cellphone towers. "I'm grateful the Legislature took action (but) the bill is a watered-down version of what we were attempting to do."
Unlike a majority of states, where county-level boards or local zoning and land-use commissions handle cell tower applications, Connecticut has the state Siting Council.
Formed in 1972, the independent council has nine members -- five appointed by the governor, including the chairman, and one each appointed by the state Speaker of the House, the state Senate president, the chairman of the Department of Public Utility Control and the environmental protection commissioner.
Critics argue the council is too industry-friendly and does not have a good grasp of local issues related to health and safety, property values and aesthetics. A 2010 review by Hearst Connecticut Media Group found that over its lifetime the council has approved 96 percent of the applications before it.
However, a 14-year-old federal law makes the proposals difficult to reject.
Still, lawmakers last year unsuccessfully pursued legislation to shift approval authority to cities and towns ,and proponents hoped for a second chance this session.
"It wouldn't give us a `get out of jail free' card. We'd have to site towers in an appropriate fashion," said June Lee, who has been fighting a cellular proposal in Easton. "But there are generations of families in Easton that know every square mile of Easton ... (The town) wants cell service. We just want it in a way that's not damaging to our town."
But others, including recently resigned Siting Council Chairman Daniel Caruso, of Fairfield, have said local control would leave Connecticut with spotty coverage and an unfair distribution of towers.
"We address many issues the towns would not be able to," Caruso told Hearst Newspapers last year. "We look at the site. We do listen, and we hold hearings in each community. We often make changes to what's proposed."
Caruso resigned from his post in March after an allegedly inappropriate discussion with a lawyer opposed to a wind power project. Caruso at the time said he did not violate any rules but wanted to avoid the perception of bias and not become a distraction.
"It doesn't give municipalities veto-proof control," Camillo said. "But it's a huge step in the direction of local autonomy."
But Ainsworth is worried the opposite will occur. "The Legislature can now say, `We did something, why do we need another bill?' " he said.
Lee has a mixed opinion. She called the 250-foot radius "absurd."
But she believes political realities being what they are, a bill stripping the Siting Council of its authority would never have passed this year.
"If it is a gateway piece of legislation ,which would then pave the way for more restrictions regarding the siting of towers, I think it is valuable," Lee said.
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at email@example.com